Thursday, October 06, 2005

Rich Gifts Wax Poor

I used to have this neighbor who was always doing unsolicited favors for me. At first I thought she was just being generous but soon I learned she was attempting to make me feel obligated. She’d do things like lend me a bassinette for my new born son or bring over a cake she had baked or she’d offer to do my hair. It wasn’t long before she began asking me favors. Could I drive her and her kids to the doctor? Could I lend her fifty bucks? Could I buy one hundred dollars worth of Tupperware so she could get the “hostess prize?” After a while I stopped answering the phone and the door in order to get her off my back.

That’s pretty much the M.O. of the cable operators. They do stuff, sometimes big stuff but mostly little stuff, in a community in order to build up their I.O.U.’s so at some point in the future they can extract repayment. Some might call it bribery, I call it “good business” even if it isn’t honest and the motives are purely self-serving.

Bright House Networks recently wrote the City of Tampa asking to cancel a $4.7 million dollar payment to the city and to reduce the number of channels provided for access from six to three. According to Bright House, this “gift” would allow them to offer subscribers 30 more channels with broader appeal such as BET and C-Span. They also offered to change the bill so the subscribers could see how much money goes to the city and not into their own pockets.

Their generosity doesn’t end there. They have a special “Community Partners Program” and every quarter they pick a nonprofit organization for which they create 30 second video “salutes.” Then there’s the Airtime Grant program valued at $10,000 to $25,000 in “advertising” for 501 (c)3’s.

I guess the Airtime Grant program is the Community Partners Program on steroids. But it’s what we in the business used to call PSA’s. Remember PSA’s? That’s when television and radio operators used to take dead air time that they couldn’t sell and throw in a nonprofit message. Seems there was some notion at some point in the dusty past, that service to the community through things like PSA’s were a natural obligation of those who were granted broadcast licenses or access to Rights of Way.

I can see why Tampa would cancel a $4.7 million obligation and turn back three access channels to Bright House, after all, Bright House is giving, out of the generosity of their souls, 30 second salutes and up to a whopping $25,000 in FREE airtime to needy nonprofits! Now the access channels will give nonprofits thirty minutes to an hour every week or even five or six times a week, but hey, let’s not mince the distinction.

It’s the Cherry Blossom Festival or the stadiums or the rodeo or the Chamber of Commerce picnic or the reading program or the sending of employees to paint playground equipment. It’s the “what we’ve done for your community.” They’re keeping a list and checking it twice so you better not be naughty you better be nice.

Meanwhile cities and counties get side-winded by these good corporate citizens. The ops gifts equal $500 or maybe even $50,000 but they want $4.7 million in return. Kind of like my old neighbor, “Here’s a cake now can you give me $100?”

My advice to the City of Tampa is to do what I did, stop answering the phone and the door and eventually they’ll go away. At the very least make darn sure you give back the bassinette, trust me on this, baby doesn’t need it anymore.

"Brighthouse Seeks New Deal" Tampa Tribune, September 27, 2005.

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