Phone companies want your television setsby Marisa Helms, Minnesota Public Radio
For the first time in a decade, Congress is taking up a massive telecommunications bill. One of its provisions would make it easier for telephone companies to offer subscription television service to cable customers.
Phone companies, like Qwest, and the big cable companies, like Comcast and Time Warner, are all lobbying to make sure they retain as many advantages as possible in the final bill. But some small players are concerned they could suffer in the process. Community television stations say they've got much to lose if the bill becomes law.
St. Paul, Minn. — Community access TV is a forum where anyone and everyone can produce, direct, and star in their own television show. It's been around since the 1980s.
The sometimes-random quality of access TV was spoofed in the 1992 movie "Wayne's World." In it, two guys hang out in their parents' basement, producing a TV show about nothing.
In Minnesota there are some 70 community TV stations, each with anywhere from one to eight channels on cable.
Programming includes city council meetings, school board meetings, religious shows, and lots of public affairs shows, including those geared toward immigrant communities. There are shows in Somali, Hmong and Spanish, for example.
Community stations are usually an arm of a local government, or an affiliated non-profit. Burnsville/Eagan Community Television Program Director Mark Hotchkiss calls community access TV a vital tool of democracy.
"This kind of communication has a huge amount of power," he says. "And that power, the public themselves should have some access to."
Community TV gets the bulk of its funding from cable company franchise fees. It's been a workable solution to funding public access for years.
But "big telephone" wants a quick entry into cable territory. And if it gets what it wants, it could spell the end for community television.
Verizon, AT&T and Qwest, among others, are leading the charge. They want "one-stop shopping." Instead of having to negotiate with hundreds of cities and counties for license agreements -- a la the cable companies -- the pending legislation would allow phone companies to apply to the Federal Communications Commission for a national franchise.
City of Eagan spokesman Tom Garrison says a national franchise would eliminate local agreements drastically reduce fees currently funding community TV. Garrison says community stations could lose between 35 to 80 percent of their funding.
"Certainly, this is an issue nationwide that has ignited a firestorm among local communities," Garrison says.
Garrison says current legislation, which already passed the U.S. House by a wide margin, would mean making difficult financial decisions prompted by a decimated budget. The phone companies pushing the legislation point out that community access TV will still get money from a specific educational fund. However, the legislation caps that money at one percent of a cable operator's video revenue.
Gary Lytle, senior vice president of federal relations for Qwest. claims Qwest will comply with existing local agreements and pay the same fees as cable companies. He says his phone company is anxious to enter the television market.
"We're ready to go," Lytle says. "And we're just delighted that the Congress is moving ahead on this issue. And we think it's good for our consumers and good for the people of Minnesota, by the way. One thing we know for sure is the cable rates have been going up, and if you add Qwest to the mixture and give people another choice, rates would be stabilized and could conceivably go down."
Initially, cable companies were opposed to the possibility of a quick onslaught of competition from phone companies. But cable cannot protest too much. After all, the industry has, itself, crossed territories, by aggressively entering the phone service market.
Rob Stoddard, a spokesman for the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, represents cable operators serving 90 percent of cable subscribers, including Minnesota's biggest providers Comcast and Time Warner.
Stoddard says all the parties are now working together on the legislation to create a level playing field for competition that he says will ultimately be good for the consumer.
"No doubt, as more companies, particularly big and well-financed companies, get into the multi-channel video space," Stoddard says, "there will be even greater innovation, stronger competition, and a new array of packages and products that are provided to the consumer."
Community TV advocates say whatever Congress comes up with, they want guarantees that community programming won't be swallowed up or forgotten by giant telecommunications companies.
- Morning Edition, 06/27/2006, 7:50 a.m.