MI: State cable TV law needs a tune-up

Posted on February 19, 2008 - 12:06pm.

from: Detroit Free Press

State cable TV law needs a tune-up

The end of analog TV signals a year from now is shaking up viewers in more ways than one. The biggest impact will fall on those with old, non-digital sets who get their signals over the air. Their TVs will simply not show a picture next year unless they get a converter box.

But Comcast's counterproductive actions in Michigan suggest that even cable customers may be pressured by their suppliers into getting new cable converter boxes as well. Michigan lawmakers should follow through on bills that would prevent cable companies from rearranging basic service cable channels, made possible in part by the confusion over the coming change in the airwaves.

Public or community access channels need to remain just that -- freely accessible to the community and public.

When over-the-air TV networks begin broadcasting exclusively in digital formats on Feb. 17, 2009, cable companies will convert those signals back into an analog transmission for those who still have analog TVs. Every viewer with a routine analog cable package should continue receiving the same service indefinitely.

Out of reach on older TV sets

Comcast, however, at least as its strategy initially emerged in Michigan, appears eager to rearrange its programming at the low end of the "dial" -- presumably still the best spot for catching channel surfers. That's where broadcast channels are now, along with local access channels that federal law requires to be in the same cable "tier" as the over-the-air stations.

But, until stopped by two courts earlier this winter, Comcast planned to move all local public access channels in Michigan to 900-level channels -- out of reach of analog equipment, which 40% of its 1.3 million subscribers still use. Subscribers were to get, at the same time, a digital box free for the first year of service.

"These channels would be grouped together in a uniform fashion, making it easier for viewers to find them no matter where they are in the state," Comcast said in a statement. "Changes like these help us offer more high-definition channels, more video-on-demand, and faster broadband services" -- all of which can mean more money for Comcast

But community access channels have a long history in Michigan. Many towns use them to broadcast their council and school board meetings. The key word is "access," which hardly rings true if the channels are exiled beyond the reach of basic equipment.
Solution must come from Lansing

The problem here is not the federal government but state cable law, which the Legislature rewrote to spur competition in the cable TV industry. The law consolidates most cable franchising power in Lansing, not in each city hall.

Since the new version took effect in January 2007, Comcast has also closed nine area production studios and consolidated local access at an office in Southfield where viewers can drop off or mail in their own tapes. "Although we will no longer produce public access programming in Michigan, we will continue to show the programming on our public access channels," Comcast's statement said.

The company has raised prices even while, to all appearances, putting fewer dollars into community efforts.

Comcast apologized in a Washington, D.C., hearing held by U.S. Rep. John Dingell, D-Dearborn, for the way it handled the plan to move community access channels. A company spokesman in Michigan declined to comment beyond the written statement.

Officials at organizations such as the Michigan Municipal League, which protested the state law because of potential impacts like this, said they're having a classic "we told you so" moment. But mostly, and appropriately, they just want the law fixed so existing cable companies can't move the public access channels. The Legislature should make this happen.