Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Ce n'est pas la science, c'est l'art!

I do have a passion for two things, Science and Art. Science because I am in awe of those fifty pound brains that can figure out the solar mass of a black hole or the structure and functions of the GNAT superfamily of acetyltransferases; and Art, because I can’t draw anything more complicated than a stick figure and I’m a big fan of Salvador Dali. Ergo I was a wee bit fascinated to find out that Comcast really employs Art, much more than Science, when figuring out what to carry on the analog Basic Tier of Service.

But that’s what the Comcast guy said yesterday at a Congressional hearing.

The hearing of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet to explore the subject of Public, Educational and Government (PEG) Access Services in the Digital age, came about because Comcast, in Michigan, slammed the PEG channels into the digital tier (900) a full year before the digital transition. This move followed a similar move by Bright House in Florida, however, given that Congressman John Dingell, Chair of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, hails from Michigan, it tweren’t so smart a move. Mr. Dingell wanted answers.

Unfortunately Comcast tripped up again. CEO Brian Roberts sent Congressman Dingell a letter that was, how do you say? Less than satisfying. Here’s a tip: don’t write a letter that takes the arrogant tone of an adolescent and then put your CEO’s name on it, not good form.

So Dingell hauled all their cabooses up before the Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet and threw in AT&T for good measure. I’ll get to AT&T in a minute.

During the hearing, Congressman Edward Markey, the chair, asked the Comcast guy what the criteria was for moving the channels. The Comcast guy (okay his name is David Cohen) responded that the channel placement really wasn’t science it was more of an “art.” Wow, who knew? Can you get college credit for that sort of discipline? Cable Channel Placement 101 worth 3 credits toward an Arts or Humanities degree?

The response was particularly rich given a few minutes later Congressman Dingell asked Mr. Cohen about the four Comcast channels still sitting on analog in the Grand Rapids area. They are: Comcast Information; Comcast Local; Comcast Marketplace; and Comcast Real Estate.

Throughout the hearing it was repeated that Comcast was just trying to give the “people” what they want. And as we all know, people want to shop, shop, shop, from the comfort of their couches and they want more and more stuff sold to them after a long hard day at work since they’re staring down the possibility of getting handed that pink slip, especially in Michigan of all places. Lord knows they don’t want to find out what’s going on in their community and they certainly don’t want to be informed of various nonprofit services and they really can’t abide a children’s reading program (all fare in Grand Rapids). They want cheap bobbles made in Chinese sweat shops and they gotta keep up on all the housing foreclosures!

Then there was AT&T. AT&T doesn’t seem to be able to deliver closed captioning to the Palo Alto area, according to Annie Folger, Executive Director of the Mid-Peninsula Community Media Center. And even if they could, the quality of the channel is so denigrated and it takes so darn long to get there, who’s going to want to watch that channel?

The highlight of the testimony came when AT&T’s Ms. Gail Torreano whipped out a video presentation of just how great those PEG channels were. I heard the Comcast people tittering because the sound on the video wasn’t coming through for at least 15 or so seconds. Then some nice AT&T lady shows you how simple it really is to click, click, click, and click your way to the PEG channel.

More embarrassing was that Annie had a video of her own, courtesy of the folks in San Jose. Annie’s video showed a blank T.V. screen and at first you think “well, who the heck took a picture of that?” then you realize there’s a counter to the side, counting the seconds….:30…:50…1:10...1:37…and voila! We have PEG on demand, just like they said!

These revelations are really the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the outright assault on PEG. Nine communities in Indiana lost their PEG channels in December (Comcast); Salina Kansas lost its funding and cable drops to the University and City Hall (Cox); a PEG facility was shut down in Durham, North Carolina (Time Warner); PEG channels were slammed into the stratosphere in Florida (Bright House). And Nevada statewide franchising allows the PEG channels to be aggregated to a single hub office, which means there could end up being no more than 3 PEG channels total in the whole state.

But “we value those channels,” that’s what the video people said yesterday. And we know they give us a competitive edge over satellite, we know they are important and hey, we live in the community too.

There was a conciliatory tone throughout the hearing. AT&T is still in its “infancy” after all and we’re working on it we swear. Comcast will do everything in their power to work with local communities to iron out these issues.

Meanwhile, in Congressman Dingell’s original letter to Comcast and again during the hearing yesterday it was repeated that the intent of Congress was that PEG channels should be offered on the Basic and least expensive tier of service, next to and lined up with the broadcast must-carry channels.

That doesn’t sound like “art” to me, art is a subjective discipline. That sounds more like the objectivity of the scientific world and it shouldn’t take months and rocket scientists to figure it out.

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