Charter Cable tries to move public channels

Local clubs and activists who have worked to build up public access television face losing their audience

Last year, around the time he signed legislation shifting cable franchise authority from local to state government, Gov. Jim Gibbons was interviewed by Willie Albright on a Sierra Nevada Cable Access Television call-in program that appeared on local public access channels.

Last year, around the time he signed legislation shifting cable franchise authority from local to state government, Gov. Jim Gibbons was interviewed by Willie Albright on a Sierra Nevada Cable Access Television call-in program that appeared on local public access channels.

Photo By David Robert

Using crutches, Bunchie Tyler hobbled up to the podium at the Reno City Council.

“A lot of our people are shut-ins, and when they are surfing they find our shows,” she said.

Tyler, local director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, was referring to programs on public access television, those cable channels that carry programs for local groups and governments—in her case, Erasing the Stigma, which runs on Thursdays at 7 pm on Channel 16.

Tyler was followed to the microphone by Netty Oliverio, whose program Curtain Call features the performing arts. She said local public access programs “also cover Artown, so that those who can’t get out” still see the events.

Bill Fine argued, “A significant portion of our population is elderly.”

Tina Nappe told the council that cable television carrying the council’s meetings helped people “learn how difficult a job you all have.”

Public access television channels sometimes are the Rodney Dangerfield of media. Sitcoms poke fun at their tiny audience, comedians talk about the dullness of watching city councils meet.

But what those small audiences lack in numbers they make up for in fervor. A threat to those channels by Charter Cable has brought their viewers out in force. At a meeting of the Reno City Council, they elicited promises of support as they seek a temporary restraining order to halt a plan to move the content of channels 12 to 17 onto the three-digit premium channels, a change Charter describes as a practical business decision to increase high definition programming.

Charter chose its moment well because people are confusing this dispute with the HDTV changeover.

Critics say that in order to continue having access to the public access channels, subscribers will have to pay an additional fee and get a converter box for their TV, a charge Charter has essentially confirmed. That has led to questions like, “We have to get a box by February anyway, so what’s the big deal?”

But in fact, in the transition to HDTV, cable and satellite companies have been telling customers that they don’t need new TVs or boxes. Columnist and labor activist Andrew Barbano says the Charter issue has nothing to do with the HDTV-type boxes. And Sierra Nevada Community Access Television (SNCAT) director Les Smith believes Charter chose this time period deliberately, to confuse the issues.

“Absolutely. Absolutely. The DTV transition is for broadcast [non-cable channels] only. The subscription services like Charter and satellite Direct TV and Dish TV—they don’t have to do this transition. … They definitely used that. They used it to kind of hornswaggle us. They told us because of the DTV transition they were moving everything up into the band, but they didn’t—they only moved us.”

SNCAT provides the service of helping local residents produce their own television shows that are then carried on local public access channels—13, 15 and 16 in this area.

All this is a product of the 1984 Cable Franchise Policy and Communications Act, which requires cable companies—in exchange for their use of the public infrastructure—to provide funding for outfits like SNCAT, which train people in using media technology, provide gear to produce programs, and put those programs on cable stations. The idea was to help build community, provide outlets for more viewpoints and address local concerns.

These arrangements are supposed to provide forums for three types of programming, from the public, educators and government, giving rise to the acronym PEG. The result, at least in Reno, has been a flowering of locally produced programs like Nevada/A Dangerous State, Classic Arts Showcase, Parrots and Human Friends, Sam Dehne Rah-Raw, Best Kids 2008, Carson City Symphony Presents, We the People—to say nothing of all those hours of government meetings.

Local control lost
In bringing their complaints to the Reno City Council, the advocates of public access were facing a receptive audience. At the 2007 Nevada Legislature, lawmakers enacted two measures, Assembly bills 526 and 518, that removed authority over cable franchises from local governments and eventually will deregulate the field. Among those pushing for approval of these measures were the Bush administration, AT&T, and Embarq, the product of a merger of Sprint and NEXTEL. When Gov. Jim Gibbons signed one of the measures, he was flanked by Embarq lobbyists Margaret McMillan and Scott Craigie. The U.S. Justice Department claimed the Nevada change would “benefit consumers by reducing costs, encouraging innovation, and broadening consumer choice.”

When they lost authority over franchises, local governments lost a revenue source, and Reno’s councilmembers have had trouble digesting their food ever since. They made clear their anger at the loss of authority. Councilmember Dave Aiazzi said, “It was supposed to lower people’s bills, by the way.” Mayor Bob Cashell told the group, “Rest assured we’re going to try [to help],” but councilmember Sharon Zadra pointed out, holding her thumb and index finger close together, “We have about this much jurisdiction and authority.”

But Charter was working quickly last week to break up any alliance among SNCAT, the citizens’ group, and the municipalities. Charter’s George Jostlin late last week was working hard to make a separate peace with Reno, Sparks and Washoe County under which fees for “economically disadvantaged” cable customers would be handled, thus putting SNCAT out on a limb of its own.

Barbano (Barbano on the Barbwire, Tuesdays at 2 p.m.), one of the few who recognized what was happening at last year’s legislature—he warned about it at the time in his Sparks Tribune column—said he had formed a consumer group to go to court to seek a temporary restraining order against Charter moving the public access channels into the upper tier. He asked the City Council to join in seeking the TRO. It was essential, he said, that the court order be obtained before Charter made the move. The changes are scheduled to take effect on Aug. 26, and the Council agreed to meet on the matter again on Aug. 20.

Barbano said that one study showed that in another state, public access lost more than 80 percent of its audience on the three-digit tier. He also said that Charter vice president Marsha Berkbigler told him in 2002, when he was serving on a municipal cable committee, that every public access channel was then worth $1 million a year when converted to commercial purposes. (Berkbigler declined an interview.)

“When you’ve got that much bandwidth in the analog, it can be changed into HDTV,” Smith said. “It can be changed into high definition channels. I mean, you can actually slice it pretty thin. You can get four HD channels for every one analog channel.”

In fact, Charter’s Jostlin says customers are beating down his door demanding more high definition television.

“I’m going to be adding nine new high definition channels that customers are clamoring for. … Everybody’s going out there, they’re buying new TVs, they’re buying digital high-def TVs, and that’s the product that they’re asking for today. And for us to maintain any type of competitive balance against Direct TV and Dish Network—who are sitting out there advertising on a daily basis that ‘We have hundreds of channels of high definition—the only way I’m going to be able to do it is find ways to add those channels.”

There appears to be no specific language in the law requiring Charter to use any particular channels. However, court challenges in other states have succeeded.

At the moment, Charter’s efforts in Wisconsin to move the channels have been stymied after a state senator filed a complaint with the Wisconsin Bureau of Consumer Protection. In Vermont, Comcast tried to move the channels and state utility regulators and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders are threatening action.

Jostlin says he is also doing more to keep public access available than most cable companies.

Smith calls the Charter plans “moving the channels to cyber-Siberia.” Smith had met with Charter representatives who told him they would be “working with TV Guide” to direct people to the three digit tier to find the access stations, but he was not convinced.

There is some indication of what could happen to public access programming when moved to the higher tier. Smith says a local education channel intended for use by the Washoe County School District, University of Nevada, and Truckee Meadows Community College was once put on Channel 200.

“TMCC produced programming and put classes on the channel to start with,” Smith said. “But, after Charter failed to follow through with a promise to provide special digital boxes to students, the audience for channel 200 basically dropped to zero. So TMCC gave up and they haven’t put any new programming on the channel for the last couple of years.”

Jostlin countered that TMCC is happy as a clam with channel 200, but a TMCC source says that while the college is reluctant to complain publicly because one of its board members is Charter vice president Berkbigler, the channel is nevertheless little used. Political science professor Fred Lokken said he gave up teaching on the channel when students stopped enrolling in courses that used channel 200 because they had no access to it.

Barbano says if Charter gets to charge a $5 a month fee and installation the box for $30, it will essentially be double billing.

“The community television system has been built and operated by the franchise fee in your cable bills for almost 20 years. Now, Charter wants to charge you more money to see your own property.”