The Future of Public Access Television in Connecticut
A few months ago, I was appointed to fill an opening in our town’s Government Access Television channel and then also to serve as our First Selectman’s designee to the Cable Access Provider for our region. Now, there is a bill before the Connecticut General Assembly concerning public access television channels, which includes the Government Access channels and it seems a good time to try and make sense out of what is going on in our state with respect to public access television.
Before I go any further, I must admit that my knowledge is incomplete and I continue to try to gather more information. To the extent that you can help me better understand the structure and issues around public access television, I would greatly appreciate it.
First, let me provide a little context. Cable television was initially offered as a regulated monopoly. They used public rights of way to run their cables to subscribers’ houses and as such need to be, at least in part, serving the public good. One way of doing this was to provide public, educational, and government access programming, or PEG programming.
A certain amount of their subscribers’ fees were to be set aside to provide this programming, and in the early days, cable companies provided studios and equipment for the public to use to create their own programs, as well as for schools and governments to use.
This was typically done on a regional basis tied to the cable companies’ franchises. For example, Woodbridge is part of Region 2, comprised of Bridgeport, Fairfield, Milford, Orange, Stratford, and Woodbridge. Cablevision is the cable company providing the service in this region.
Within each region is a Cable Advisory Council (CAC) which addresses issues of the cable company’s operation within the region. Somewhere along the line, people became concerned with the way cable companies were providing services to public access producers and a provision was made for third party providers, or Cable Access Providers (CAP) to handle the public access services.
In our region, a non-profit organization named Sound View Community Media is providing this service. Yet even this has not worked as well as people had hoped. Many municipalities wanted to set up their own town specific government access channels. This has been widely done and in Woodbridge the Woodbridge Government Access Television (WGATV) channel being highly successful.
So, where does the money come from and go? In our region, approximately $600,000 is collected from Cablevision subscriber fees. Most of this goes to Sound View Community Access. However, as a result of the move towards town specific programming, some of the money goes to yet another group that provides grants to towns for their government and educational programming. In addition to this, many towns provide additional funding for government and educational programming in their town budgets.
If this isn’t complicated enough already, cable television has now been opened up to competition. AT&T is offering a service called U-verse. The licensing changed. Cable companies have been licensed as Community Antenna Television Companies (CATC). These licenses are typically for a region. A new type of license has now been created for Cable Franchise Authorities (CFA). These are typically statewide licenses. My understanding is that Cablevision has applied for and received a CFA license now, in addition to its CATC license. There are also rumors that Verizon is likely to file for a CFA license by the end of the year.
As the cable market opens up to competition, questions have arisen about the future of Cable Advisory Commissions and Community Access Providers. Will, or should CACs be subsumed into the Department of Public Utility Control (DPUC)? People have often complained about DPUC being a little too close with the utilities that they are supposed to control, and such an action might result in considerable pushback. In addition, the CACs provide an important role in keeping a local and regional voices in the process.
In addition, as state wide Cable Franchise Authorities emerge, what how should local community access programming be handled? Currently, in region two, there are three channels, a public channel, an educational channel and a government channel that are specific to the region, and in some cases are town specific. In addition, there is the CT-N network which broadcasts events from the State Capitol.
Will state wide CFAs provide the same sort of coverage, or will they try to roll up various channels to statewide channels? There are pluses and minuses to this. For the local government and education access channels, it looks mostly negative and only an exacerbation of the issues between town specific and region specific programming. Yet for the public access and perhaps in some cases the educational access channels, there is a potential advantage of having your programming viewed by a larger audience.
All of this leads us to the bill currently being considered by the General Assembly. HB 6604, An Act Concerning Public Access Television Channels attempts to address some of these issues. The bill was initially debated back in March with the League of Women Voters along with representatives of community and government access channels and Cable Advisory Councils speaking in favor of the bill.
AT&T strongly opposed the bill during the hearings and I am told is currently lobbying hard against the bill and particularly against language introduced by Rep. Vickie Nardello clarifying what companies like AT&T must carry and strengthening oversight of the process.
People have reported that AT&T threatens to pull out of the cable market if these provisions are passed. However, they did not pull out of Illinois when stricter provisions were passed, and it is hard to image that they would cede further market share to the cable companies that are providing integrated telephony, cable and Internet access.
Others have opposed the bill because they view it as being too weak in supporting community access. In these days where we see the significant decline of local news coverage by new newspapers, it is all the more important to maintain and promote community access television and HB 6604 should be strongly supported along with Rep. Nardello’s amendment, despite any potential shortcomings.