NC: New public-access TV law comes with a price

Posted on March 9, 2008 - 8:03am.

from: The Durham News

New public-access TV law comes with a price
Samiha Khanna, Staff Writer

East Durham resident Mattie Rouse doesn't have a car, and can't get around that easily on foot. So she doesn't get to Greater Joy Baptist Church much anymore to see the bishop.

But she's hopeful she'll continue to be able to see him on cable Channel 8. Greater Joy's Bishop James Daniel is one of several ministers in Durham who have been broadcasting their sermons on Durham's public-access channel for nearly 20 years for free. Many of the shows are broadcast on Sundays and repeated during the week.

"That is my source of comfort and my source for healing," said Rouse, 69, who suffers from arthritis. "That's what keeps me going."

Those sermons, as well as talk shows and other public-access programming that airs on cable Channel 8, were threatened earlier this year due to recent changes in cable franchise laws.

The city and county agreed this week, however, to continue public access. But what used to be aired for free will now cost taxpayers about $12,000 a month.

The change is due to a law established by the Legislature in 2006 that shifted cable franchising authority from local governments to the state government.

The transfer in responsibility has changed some of the services Time Warner is obligated to provide to governments, said Deputy City Manager Ted Voorhees. Under a former local agreement with the city of Durham, Time Warner employees used to produce and air public-access TV for free, Voorhees said.

Now that Time Warner's franchise is granted by the state, the company doesn't have to meet the requirements of individual contracts with cities and counties, Voorhees said.

Ministers and other public-access providers used to be able to go into Time Warner's local studios on East Club Boulevard to learn how to operate cameras, edit tape and make television. Now local shows must be produced independently and submitted to Time Warner to be reviewed, scheduled and aired.

The situation is less than ideal, but not a total loss, said the Rev. James E. Vaughan, who produces a Christian variety show called "Voices."

"You win some, you lose some," said Vaughan, pastor at Abundant Life Assembly Church.

Though the city and county reached the agreement with Time Warner, not all of the county's grievances were addressed in the agreement.

Durham County officials have filed a lawsuit seeking an additional channel, which they say they are entitled to for free under the law.

According to correspondence between Time Warner and Durham County over the past three weeks, it appears the two parties have different ways of interpreting the law.

Durham County officials said in a letter Feb. 19 that the county is entitled to two public channels strictly for county programs. Under the same law, cities with populations of more than 50,000 get three cable channels. That interpretation would give Durham five channels total.

The county requested a response by Feb. 29.

On Feb. 29, Time Warner attorneys faxed a letter to the county saying the cable company is complying with the law. In a location such as Durham, where both city and county are served by the same Time Warner control center, the city and county must share access to channels, the letter said. or (919) 956-2468