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MA: Cutting public access channel would be unwise

By saveaccess
Created 01/18/2007 - 10:46pm

frm: Worchester Telegram [1]

Friday, December 22, 2006
Community voices

Cutting public access channel would be unwise

As Worcester nears the end of the current cable television contract with Charter Communications, speculation that the public-access channel could take a major budget hit is troubling, indeed.

In a report earlier this month, The Research Bureau offered several helpful suggestions for improving programming and customer service.

However, the suggestion that the $1.1 million in franchise fee revenue be reallocated — with WCCA-TV 13, the nonprofit public access channel, being cut by two-thirds — seems directly contrary to the intent of the federal statutes governing cable television.

To be sure, much of the WCCA’s programming lacks Hollywood slickness, but there can be little doubt it represents the kind of broad public access intended by Congress. WCCA airs 133 hours-plus of local programming weekly that is astonishing in its variety: cooking, politics, public affairs, music, religion, theater, the arts, travel, health and more. It also offers GED and workplace skills instruction and English as a Second Language. It offers TV production workshops, a computer lab, internships and runs a hands-on KidsNet program for teens.

The Research Bureau notes, correctly, that Worcester is not compelled to use the public-access money strictly for public programming.

It could, for example, legally reallocate part of WCCA’s funding to improve the city’s I-Net internal communications system — a public purpose, perhaps, but inaccessible to the general public.

Even harder to justify would be obtaining special legislation to divert money now earmarked for WCCA into the city’s general fund. Besides undermining public access, such a move would create a patently unfair municipal surtax targeting cable subscribers.

The history of public access television is full of legal twists and turns, but the intent of Congress is clear: In return for quasi-monopoly status, cable companies must serve, in part, as a forum in which community voices can be heard.

With less than three weeks remaining in Worcester’s cable television contract with Charter Communications, the successor contract has yet to be nailed down. Since service would continue under existing contract provisions, there’s no cause for panic.

However, the prospect of a reallocation of funds at the expense of local-access programming is cause for community concern.

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