Proposed State Regs Threaten Public Access

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Eye from Albany
July 2003

Proposed State Regs Threaten Public Access
by Paul M. Bray

While the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has opened the floodgates to domination of local print and broadcast media by a few media powerhouses, the NYS Department of Public Service appears to be proceeding to use its regulatory powers over the cable television industry to suck the oxygen from the last vestige of local information broadcasting, community based public access TV.

James Surowiecki described the plight of local media in the New Yorker: “Now big media players control both programming and distribution. Five companies own all the broadcast networks, four of the major movie studios, and ninety per cent of the top fifty cable channels. Those companies also produce three-quarters of all prime-time programming. Ten years ago, four of them accounted for just a quarter of it.” Across the political spectrum concern is being expressed about homogenized news, one size fits all entertainment and loss of local control, diversity of viewpoints and community identity.

Some are looking to Congress with Senator Ted Stevens, a Republican from Alaska leading the charge, to reign in the FCC and overturn its recent rulings raising the cap on media penetration and the restriction on cross-ownership. Whether or not Congress acts on Stevens’ legislation, the cat will still be out of the bag on media concentration. Three companies will continue to own at least half the radio stations in America.

A grassroots public media access movement offers some promise of filling the vacuum of local coverage if it can capture technological capacity and local funding. Instead of New York State proactively supporting and assisting the development of local capacity in its communities, it is threatening the existing toehold for public access. As Mark McGuire reported in the Times Union, the Department of Public Service “has proposed new regulations that could cut the number of public, educational and governmental access channels (PEGs) on TV”.

The proposed regulations are available on the web at www.askpsc.com). They address the cable agreements between municipalities and cable companies like global Time Warner. Under these agreements, franchise fees are paid by cable providers to municipalities and provisions can be made for PEG channels and support for local public access media centers. In effect, the agreements offer the life-blood for public access TV (even though many communities pocket the franchise fees in to their general fund rather than investing it in public access capacity). Some municipalities like Schenectady take advantage of the franchise process to develop public access capacity and others like the Albany have no government access programming.

If the Public Service Commission implements the proposed regs, the time span of cable agreements will be increased from 10 to 15 years and a cable company and municipality could agree to a single shared access channel instead of the current minimum of two channels. Overall, the regs have been called “a back door attack upon public access” by limiting public participation in the franchise process and lowering the standard for what cable companies could provide for public access.

Opposition to the proposed regs comes from voices like the Alliance for Community Media, a national nonprofit membership organization advocating on behalf of approximately 1500 PEG access centers in the United State (www.alliancecm.org), NYS Assembly members Ruben Diaz, Jr. and Jeff Klein and grassroots voices like William Huston of the Binghamton Public Access Coalition (http://BinghamtonPublicAccess.org).

The Alliance in its comments on the proposed regs pointed out that New York was in the forefront of requiring public access commitment from the cable companies. Cable was viewed as the technical means to bring us all together. Now it appears that neither the State as protector of the public’s right to know and to communicate or cable companies that should have some level of corporate social responsibility have any interest in realizing that ideal.

Instead of proposing relaxed cable consumer protections and public access requirements, we would be much better served as citizens, members of communities across the state and as beneficiaries of the overall information age economy to have the department of public service staff proposing goals and implementation steps so that every community has state of the art community media access centers and cable I-NET systems (allowing government, health and school buildings to be connected by cable).

Believers in a strong local say about the means and content of communications need to keep an eye not only on Congress where the FCC rules on media power are being challenged but also on Albany and your local community where local voices are being threatened.

Comments can be sent to the Department of Public Service by telephone (800) 335 2120, mail to the Department at Office of the Secretary, 3 Empire State Plaza, Albany, NY 12223 or through their website at www.askpsc.com.

Paul M. Bray is President of the P.M.Bray LLC, an Albany environmental and planning law firm. His e-mail address is pmbray@aol.com.

Paul M. Bray is President of the P.M.Bray LLC, an environmental and planning law firm in Albany. His e-mail address is pmbray@aol.com and past columns can be found on www.braypapers.com