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WI: Goodbye West Allis Community Media Center

By saveaccess
Created 04/24/2007 - 10:45am

from Mary Cardona, Executive Director, Wisconsin Association of Public Access Centers [1]

Goodbye West Allis Community Media Center

Monday, April 23, 2007

As a result of a vote in the Assembly this Tuesday and a vote in the Senate swiftly to follow, West Allis Community Media Center (WACMC) will likely be closing its doors. One of the largest jewels of public access television in the whole nation will be silenced after 25 years when the Wisconsin legislature votes for the Video Competition Act (SB 107), as currently amended.

Spurred by protests from city leaders, local programming advocates, legislators on both sides of the aisle, and her own strong desire to protect public, education, and government (PEG) access stations, Senate leader Judy Robson (D-Janesville) worked with Senate Utility Committee Chair Jeff Plale (D-South Milwaukee) to amend the bill to save PEG stations in nearly 100 communities across Wisconsin. Draconian content requirements and costly upstream transmission charges were lifted and at the last minute, a three-year moratorium on eliminating PEG fees was passed in the Senate Committee, saving the budgets of 21 PEG access centers in Wisconsin in the near term. PEG fees are added to cable bills in 26 cities. On average, a PEG fee adds 40 cents to the bill.

Unfortunately, a loophole in the three-year moratorium negotiated with the cable industry will cause Ashwaubenon, Sheboygan, Stevens Point, and West Allis to lose their PEG fees immediately and Wausau after only one year. Because the West Allis Community Media Center relies upon PEG fees for its entire budget, it will have no choice but to close.

The moratorium loophole allows cable operators (and video providers) to stop paying PEG fees on the date the local franchise agreement with the city was to have expired, if earlier than three years. Three of the five cities losing their PEG fees are among the cities whose local cable franchises have already expired and whose renewals have been stalled by the cable operator. Time Warner and Charter refused to complete negotiations, hoping state or federal law would strengthen their bargaining positions. The tactic has worked for them. The City of West Allis, operating on quarterly extensions since December 2005, will now lose its public access station immediately, if this loophole is not closed.

For 25 years, West Allis Community Media Center (WACMC) has been a leader in the non-profit public access television field. Over the last seven years, its 100-strong volunteer community producers have created over 200 local programs each year, including 16 regular series. Since 1997, WACMC has partnered with the School District to program its educational access channel, train students and teachers, share equipment, and teach media literacy.

Other immediate losers if the bill is not amended are cities that have cable company managed PEG access channels. Upon passage, cable operators are no longer required to provide this service. Unless cities are prepared to take over immediately with staff, equipment, and upstream facilities, they could lose these channels according to provisions in the bill. Cities in this position include Neenah, Menasha, Appleton, Waukesha, and Wauwatosa.

According to legislative records, the Act was written by cable and telephone industry insiders. The bill was designed to deregulate the cable television market, eliminate public interest services like public, education, and government access channels, cripple consumer protections and free video providers to roll out their product wherever they want whenever they want without local government oversight. To the public and to Wisconsin legislators, it has been marketed as a cure-all that promises competition, lower rates, and better service.

Intense lobbying by AT&T and the cable industry is pushing this legislation through in only six weeks, giving legislators little time to fully understand its effect – much less the public. Feeling pressured by the “astroturf” TV4Us campaign that launched hundreds of e-mails and phone calls to their offices, and worried that their constituents will not understand if they take more time, legislators are being hustled to the vote.

What some of our representatives don’t fully appreciate is that they are likely to hear from their unhappy constituents loud and clear after this vote and over the next several years. Despite multiple amendments that have improved the bill there are still serious problems with it. Local governments will be referring consumers with complaints to a poorly staffed state agency with little rulemaking authority to enforce the customer service standards and consumer protections that are now in the bill. In 70% of Wisconsin, AT&T will not be competing against deregulated cable companies. And if AT&T decides to serve your town, you may still not get a choice. Video providers are required to serve only 50% the community after six years. Public schools, already in desperate shape due to statewide budget caps, will lose free cable service. There are many more issues besides. AT&T decides to serve your town, you may still not get a choice. Video providers are required to serve only 50% the community after six years. Public schools, already in desperate shape due to statewide budget caps, will lose free cable service. There are many more issues besides.

There is something wrong about rushing through a bill of this complexity. A bi-partisan group of courageous legislators have managed to act quickly enough to save almost all current PEG access channels in a somewhat tattered condition and to have improved the bill in many respects, but many issues need a more thorough review. With a vote looming on Tuesday in the Assembly, PEG advocates just dare to hope that legislators will see the justice in allowing PEG fees to go forward three years for the remaining five Wisconsin communities. We’d all like West Allis Community Media to stay open. We’d also like towns with cable company managed PEG channels to be extended the same courtesy. But with only hours remaining, it is unlikely that there is enough time to make progress on many issues. Six weeks is simply not enough.

Let’s hope the Senate schedules its vote on the Video Competition Act with ample time to review Assembly action. No constituent will suffer from a delay. I think Wisconsinites would rather the legislature took the time to get it right. Do we dare hope the legislature will allow cable subscribers to kick in 40 cents a month to see local council meetings, Little League, and in-depth issue programs? That’s a decision for our elected representatives to make. What is more important at this stage is that our legislators and our legislative process are respected and that our representatives demand the time they need to make good public policy.

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