MI: Comcast shift on public access enhances importance of Web

Posted on January 11, 2008 - 8:35am.

from: Lansing State Journal

Published January 11, 2008

Public TV: Comcast shift on public access enhances importance of Web
A Lansing State Journal editorial

Communities across mid-Michigan are running into the fallout of a 2006 state law altering oversight of cable television. The consensus view appears to be one of unhappiness at changes in which community content will appear.

The most viable solution: Look more to the technology of the Internet to deliver community and school news.

Causing the angst is cable giant Comcast's decision to move public access channels from their traditional home in the basic cable tier (think low-numbered channels) to new slots in the 900-range. Unfortunately, the way to access the 900-range is to have Comcast's digital (pricier) service, or acquire a special converter box to capture the public channels.

Comcast is providing converter boxes for free for one year. After that, they would rent for about $4 a month.

The end result of all this, fear some school and local government folks, is a loss in viewership and access.

Moving government and educational content probably will have exactly that effect. Certainly the process of requiring converter boxes is a barrier to all but the most-committed public access viewer.

But also remember, these access shows don't draw that many viewers. They are niche products, like many of the other offerings found on digital cable tiers.

As for cost, the matter is one of degree. In the past, anyone who didn't pay for basic cable didn't get the public fare anyway. Content is not free.

Comcast is doing all this because it can, thanks to Michigan lawmakers.

Back in 2006, phone conglomerate AT&T said it wanted to start competing vigorously for TV customers. The Texas-based firm, though, argued that Michigan's system of local control of cable franchising was too onerous. It lobbied the Legislature to install, instead, a standard statewide system that limited local authority.

A bill eventually sailed through the Legislature - Rep. Mark Meadows, D-East Lansing, is the only currently sitting area legislator who opposed final passage - and was signed by Gov. Jennifer Granholm. At the time, an LSJ editorial noted, "Local governments vigorously opposed the measure. And, while changes were made at the last minute, the bill ... denudes local authority and representation in exchange for promises."

Comcast is taking advantage of the fact the 2006 law pre-empts local authority and allows for the relocation of public access programming. The Legislature and Granholm were convinced by AT&T and others that the competitive benefits of standardized state control exceeded the benefits found in local authority.

Comcast is making a business decision, but one stemming directly from a political decision made at the state Capitol by elected representatives.

Bills to revise the 2006 law were filed in 2007, but lacking a lobbying push from corporate interests, they've gone nowhere in Lansing.

A brighter future for community programming exists, though - via technology, not politics.

As computers become as ubiquitous as TVs in American homes, and as the Internet grows in capabilities and cultural significance, the ability of schools and government to communicate with citizens is only enhanced. A televised city council meeting can be a video stream based on the city's Web site. A local concert broadcast on public access becomes a video or audio file at the school district's home page.

Even better, such content can be viewed by the public at an individual's discretion, not at times dictated by any TV schedule.

Area residents unhappy with Comcast's actions should focus on two things:

• The next time state lawmakers say they know better than local governments about a local issue, be more skeptical.

• Be ready to support local governments and schools in investing more in Web-based communication.

( categories: Comcast | MICHIGAN | State Franchises )