TX: El Paso to expand cable government channel

Posted on November 22, 2007 - 12:42pm.

from: El Paso Times

El Paso to expand cable government channel
By David Crowder / El Paso Time
Article Launched: 11/19/2007 12:00:00 AM MST

When Time Warner gets out of the business of broadcasting local government meetings on cable Channel 15 in January, El Paso's City Hall will take over and has big plans for a full-time government TV channel.

"It's kind of exciting because we have 24 hours to fill, seven days a week, and we're starting from the ground up," city spokes woman Juli Lozano said.

The city will be picking up the six local government meetings that Time Warner now handles -- including the El Paso City Council, County Commissioners Court and Thomason Hospital and Central Appraisal District boards.

Broadcasts of the El Paso, Socorro and Ysleta school district board meetings and the El Paso Community College board were moved to cable Channel 14 two months ago.

Paso Community College manages the programming on Channel 14, which is overseen by the El Paso Instructional Collaborative. The station is referred to as EPIC 14.

Time Warner has never tried to learn how many people watch the local government meetings on TV, but El Paso Realtor Michael Bray thinks the number of viewers is larger than some think.

"I watch the City Council meetings quite a bit, and I think there are quite a few people out there who do, too," said Bray, a member of the government affairs committee of the Greater El Paso Association of Realtors. "You have to assume that anyone involved with the chambers of commerce or others with important issues will be watching it on video stream or TV."

Susan Patten, Time Warner's vice president for public affairs in Dallas, said the local governments are taking over government programming because of a bill the Texas Legislature approved in 2005 in response to telephone companies' desire to enter the cable business without having to negotiate agreements with every city.

Under that legislation, traditional cable TV companies that for decades have had to negotiate periodic franchise agreements with many cities in Texas will go to a single state franchise agreement as the local franchises expire. Time Warner has more than 300 cable franchise agreements in Texas.

As those agreements expire, the legislation gives communities the opportunity to take over programming responsibilities on the cable channels used to broadcast government meetings and programs. El Paso's agreement with Time Warner expired in May.

Gary Gordier, the city's information technology director, said the city would still receive an annual franchise fee from Time Warner equal to 5 percent of the company's gross revenues for the use of the city's rights of way.

Time Warner, he said, now will be paying an additional 1 percent of its gross revenues into a capital fund administered by the city to finance the purchase of broadcasting equipment and facilities.

The city has received its first quarterly payment of $170,000. At that rate, the city will get about $680,000 a year.

But Assistant City Manager Bill Studer said Time Warner has put the city on notice that it will be making payments to the city over and above the annual 5 percent franchise fee under protest.

"They think it should come out of the 5 percent," Studer said. "We think the law is clear."

Patten said Time Warner is collecting the extra 1 percent from its customers and will pass that money onto El Paso and other cities because it is required by state law.

But, she said, the company thinks the Texas law conflicts with the 5 percent limit that the federal government placed on the franchise fees that cities can require cable operators to pay.

Lozano said the city is buying the equipment it needs to begin handling government meeting broadcasts and a significant expansion of city government programming that will air starting in January.

"City 15," the short name for the city's station, will begin airing meetings now available only on computer, such as the City Plan Commission and the new Camino Real Regional Mobility Authority.

Lozano said there would be a lot of new informational programming.

Eventually, she expects City 15 to have its own broadcasting studio and to be offering high-quality programming that will require more personnel than the two video technicians the city has employed.

East Valley city Rep. Eddie Holguin said he's worried about creeping costs.

"If Time Warner isn't going to do it and we are, I want to be sure it doesn't cost anything more," he said. "I've repeatedly asked, and they have repeatedly assured me that everything should run smoothly, and it won't cost the taxpayers additional funds."

East Side resident Sal Gomez, a critic of government spending, said he regularly watches County Commissioners Court meetings but would not want to see City TV grow.

"If it's going to cost me more for something that's seldom watched, I say no, they should just cut it off," he said.

David Crowder may be reached at dcrowder@elpasotimes.com; 546-6194.

( categories: State Franchises | TEXAS | Time Warner )