The buzz on the future of city cable television

Walt Shepperd 11/21/09More articles
A study commissioned by the city administration in 1973 for the coming of cable television recommended municipal ownership for delivering the service locally, a concept favored in discussions at the Federal Communications Commission during the Sixties. Thirty years after local cable began broadcasting, during a series of buzz groups, November 9 to 12, conducted by the Buske Group, contracted by the city to make recommendations for the negotiation of a local franchise agreement, there was little mention of that concept. But engineer Carlo Moneti, who has spent considerable time studying on it, maintains that municipal ownership could reduce local subscriber rates by at least 30 percent.

“I’ve been doing a sanity check,” Moneti told City Eagle, “talking with Tim Nulty, a retired economist who has developed several telecom services, talking to the people at Metronet and others in the field. He lives in Vermont, where Burlington is one of the 400 communities across the country that have municipal systems. He’s interested in Syracuse because of its size, because it’s urban, and its proximity. He’s an authority on the subject, and could put together a plan with a basic buy in to see if it’s feasible here. The city could buy the {transmission} system from Time Warner. Time Warner doesn’t want to sell, because the system is too lucrative. But the franchise agreement has expired, and the city doesn’t have to renew it.”

Down for a decade
During the buzz groups, facilitator Susan Buske repeatedly warned those in attendance representing city agencies, organizations, businesses or themselves as cable viewers, that the franchise agreement, currently under mutually agreed upon extension, if renewed, would lock in items of negotiated agreement for 10 years. She emphasized that a 1984 federal law established that cable franchise agreements can not be exclusive, and that the city could negotiate the same agreement with both Time Warner and Verizon, which is looking to build a subscriber base in the city. The 1984 law, she noted, also mandated a 5 percent franchise fee to be used at the city’s discretion. The current agreement, with about 34,000 subscribers, is extended until March 2010.

“A lot has changed in the world of technology since the last franchise agreement in 1997,” Buske emphasized in response to questions from audience members at each group session. “The city can not regulate rates, nor dictate content. The city can’t regulate the raising of volume on commercials, although the FCC is looking into it, and public pressure could be brought on the negotiators to call attention to the issue.” As to who would be carrying on negotiations for the city, Common Councilor Lance Denno said, “Who will negotiate has not yet been determined, but that determination will be made by the mayor’s office.”
Buske also emphasized the value of creating a community media center for producing public access, government and education channels.

Creating an informed and engaged local citizenry
Buske distributed an article from Community Media Review by FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein. “It is our responsibility to assure access to cable television by groups and individuals other than those who own the franchise,” he insisted. “Community access on PEG channels contributes greatly to the creation of an informed and engaged local citizenry. Continuing to work on reestablishing this important content is a crucial step towards achieving diversity.”

The city could mandate the placement of the PEG channels, Buske explained, adding that an FCC policy requires their inclusion in the most basic package offered by the cable company. A community media center would provide training and lend equipment for PEG production.

The history of PEG production locally has witnessed both a flooding of activity at its apex and a serious drought over the past few years. Originally placed on the top tier of cable channels, at its peak the single local public access channel had about 200 active producers. Now there are only three utilizing Time Warner’s public access studio on a regular basis. Equipment at the studio has been allowed to deteriorate, and there is no significant effort to promote the channel’s local offerings, or the opportunity of free training for the public in the production process. Many at the buzz groups stated that they didn’t know channel 98 existed, or found difficulties with the transmission. Buske highlighted these items as issues that should be communicated to the negotiators. Some new equipment has arrived, however. For information on use of the new equipment call 234-1162.

CATEGORY: News & Media
TAGS: syracuse city cable television,Time Warner,engineer Carlo Moneti,Buske Group,Susan Buske,Time Warner’s public access studio,Channel 98 syracuse,Syracuse tv franchise agreement
EDITION: The Eagle

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