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MI: Comcast wrong to fiddle with public access

By saveaccess
Created 12/03/2007 - 11:31pm

from: Times Herald [1]

Comcast wrong to fiddle with public access

State law harms communities' ability to watch local government

Just when television broadcasts of the new Port Huron City Council's sessions promised to be interesting, Comcast soon will make them more difficult - and eventually more costly - to see.


The bad news came up during Monday's City Council meeting. After Jan. 15, public access Channels 6 and 12 will vanish to the cable company's digital tier.
Channel 6, which aired Port Huron Area School District programs and activities - and most important, district school board meetings - will become digital Channel 902. Channel 12, which aired meetings of the Port Huron City Council and St. Clair County Board of Commissioners, will change to digital Channel 900.

The changes are unwelcome. They come at a time when public access has taken on a greater importance to communities here and throughout the nation. The ability to monitor meetings of local government on television gives the public a valuable tool. Residents don't have to attend those sessions in public to see the policy decisions of their elected officials.

Thanks to the Michigan Legislature, that vital commitment to public access is changing - and not for the better.

When the "Uniform Video Services Local Franchise Act" became state law in December 2006, it was supposed to ring in a new era. Increased competition was supposed to translate into lower prices for cable customers.

In the bargain, local governments lost the power to negotiate agreements with cable providers. One of the most critical provisions of local control was lost.

Comcast spokeswoman Louise Beller wants local communities, such as ours, to look on the bright side. Once those channels are banished statewide to the higher tier, Comcast can provide "a higher-quality format" and channel programming lineups would become more consistent.

Beller also said Comcast plans to provide digital converter boxes to basic-cable subscribers at no charge for the first year. After that, however, they'll have to pay from $2 to $4 a month to keep the devices.

Even with this limited gesture, there's still a problem. Subscribers to Comcast's "Limited Basic," "Senior Preferred Basic" or "Preferred Basic" services are out of luck. The digital converter box won't work for them. To make it function, they will have to purchase the next higher service tier, called "Digital Starter" or "Basic Digital" - for more money.

Beller doesn't know how many people watch public access channels locally or how many people in St. Clair County receive Channel 6 and Channel 12. Channel 6 has about 10,000 subscribers and Channel 12 has more than 60,000, according to local officials' estimates.

It's obvious, though, that cable public access programming here and throughout the state is taking a hit. The public's right to know is about to be undermined - and it has the state legislature to thank.

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