Tuesday, September 16, 2008

More Verminators!

On the eve of a Congressional hearing regarding what has happened to Public, Educational and Government (PEG) access channels since the passage of statewide or state issued franchise legislation, it is heartening to note that the cable and telecom industries (and the FCC) have severely overplayed their hand. Tomorrow, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government will hear a laundry list of harms done to PEG in what appears to be an industry-wide effort to bury and destroy these local channels. An effort that was spawned by the FCC’s First and Second Report and Order on Video Franchising and the nineteen states that passed the state legislation. These harms come at a time when Congress and the American people are acutely sensitive to media consolidation and the loss of localism.

Unfortunately I can’t be at the hearing because of a previous commitment, so I will now imagine how it will go.

The Chairman of the Subcommittee, Representative Jose E. Serrano (16th District, New York) will gavel the meeting to order then proceed to call on witnesses. First, Monica Desai, Chief of the FCC’s Media Bureau.

Serrano: Ms. Desai, when the FCC considered its First Report and Order on Video Franchising, how many comments on the proceeding did the FCC receive?

Desai: Uh, 4,424 sir.

Serrano: And of those, how many were from individuals?

Desai: Uh, 3,771 sir.

Serrano: How many of those individual comments did you cite in the Report and Order?

Desai: Uh, none sir.

Serrano: How many local franchising authorities commented?

Desai: Uh, 430 sir.

Serrano: How many of those local franchising authority comments were cited?

Desai: 23% of all our citations were from comments submitted by local franchising authorities, sir.

Serrano: How many comments did you receive from the cable and telephone companies?

Desai: We received 26 comments from the cable companies and 23 comments from the telephone companies, sir.

Serrano: How many of those cable and telephone comments were cited in the Order?

Desai: 77% of all our citations were from comments submitted by cable and telephone companies, sir.

Serrano: So in other words, are you saying that even though less than 1% of all comments regarding the First Report and Order were tendered by the industry, the Commission cited them 77% of the time and relied on those industry comments to render its decision, a decision I would remind you, that has fundamentally turned the Communications Act on its head?

Desai: Those people wanted at&t and Verizon to build them an Italian Ice Stand for God’s sake! They wanted water parks with sea monster rides! They were demanding prescription drug coverage for every man, woman and child, regardless of income! They wanted a chicken in every pot! It was unbearable, beyond the pale, above the majority of the Commissioners’ pay grades…uh, sir!

Next, I imagine Serrano will call on Mr. Howard Symons, from Mintz ,Levin, Cohn, Ferris Glovsky and Popeo, P.C.

Serrano: Mr. Symons can you explain why Comcast shut down five PEG access channels in Indiana after statewide franchising was passed even though the Indiana law was clear that the municipalities were to receive the same number of channels and the same level of funding as was in place before statewide franchising?

Symons: Because they can.

Serrano: Mr. Symons can you explain why Comcast, Brighthouse, Charter and Cablevision have slammed PEG channels off the Basic tier and into the digital tier, requiring subscribers to have to rent additional equipment in order to receive them even though federal legislation provides that PEG channels are to be carried on the Basic tier?

Symons: Because they can.

Serrano: Mr. Symons can you explain why Cablevision will be slamming PEG off the Basic tier in New York state even though there is an explicit New York law that requires PEG channels to be carried on the lowest tier of service, therefore Cablevision will be breaking the law in New York?

Symons: Because they can.

Serrano: Can you explain why at&t slams all PEG channels in a region into the single channel 99, in which a subscriber has to wade through several menus to get the channel and once they do the resolution on the channel is 480 x 480, not much better than a cell phone, and they don’t provide closed captioning or emergency alert messages on those channels?

Symons: I am not here to speak for at&t, but if I were…it’s because they can.

Serrano: Mr. Symons can you explain to me why there is a wide-spread concerted effort on the part of the industry to destroy PEG channels at a time when there is a severe loss of any kind of localism and unprecedented media consolidation?

Symons: I can’t speak for the whole industry but I do know that subscribers want more shopping channels, they want more ESPN, they want more reality channels, more Smack-Down, more wife-swap, more mixed marshal arts, more Hannah Montana, more Entertainment Tonight, more real estate channels, more Little House on the Prairie re-runs, more Ninja Warrior, more Florence Henderson, more Ab-Busters, more Judge Karen and Judge Hatchett, more Malibu Pilates, more Verminators…subscribers are insatiable gluttons for trash television and the mission of the cable and video industry is to make sure none of them, from cradle to grave, will have to go to bed hungry!

I have no doubt emotions will run high in the hearing room and back pedaling will be the sport of the day. Granted, Monica Desai didn’t make the decisions in the First or Second Report and Order and certainly Howard Symons does not run Comcast or the other cable companies, but the “industry” is drunk with the power that the FCC brewed and the state legislatures served up cold. They forgot that those PEG channels are watched by the communities in which they reside. They forgot that more than one Congressperson uses PEG channels to communicate with their constituents. They also forgot that it was Congress itself, lo so many years ago, that mid-wifed PEG channels into existence through the Cable Act. And the industry, as well as the FCC, has shown a unique deafness in the debate on media consolidation, a debate equally engaged in by Democrats and Republicans.

I would advise that one must always be careful not to gloat or overplay one’s hand when what one wanted is handed to them on a silver platter by slick politicians or misguided appointed officials. There are only so many Aces in a deck and at some point you will run out.

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