Democracy and information

On Thursday, Sept. 4, a meeting was held to address Charter’s efforts to move the public, education and government (PEG) channels to the digital tier and the digital divide within the community that the move will cause. Charter representatives, viewers and producers from Sierra Nevada Community Access Television (SNCAT), representatives from Reno, Sparks, Carson City and even a couple of state legislators, Senator Randolph Townsend and Assemblywoman Bonnie Parnell, participated in the meeting.

It was a classic example of unstoppable market forces colliding with immovable American institutions. On the one hand, Charter is struggling to maintain its competitive edge in the market. On the other hand, local government and the community have a small minority interest in Charter’s market but a majority interest in community access over the cable franchise.

Charter spent most of the two-hour meeting in heroic efforts to help everyone understand the impenetrable technologies behind the transition and their proposed solution. But, the digital boxes that Charter pitched are a purposeful distraction. They are the right hand in a left-handed magic trick, designed to hold our attention while Charter makes something much bigger and more important disappear.

Despite the distraction, viewers and producers held steadfast to Charter’s original promise of community service, free speech, access to local government, arts and education, currently provided on PEG channels. This promise is part of the deal that Charter made in the beginning in order to do business in this community. When PEG viewers asked Charter about losing life-line connections to the community through PEG channels, Charter answered that they were losing “high-end” customers every day.

At the center of this issue is a state franchise law, passed unanimously during the 2007 legislature. On the surface, the law provides Charter with the option of changing their channel line-up. Some protections for PEG were built into the law but kept intentionally vague by the bill’s authors, Charter, AT&T, Cox Cable and Embarq Telecommunications. This allowed Nevada’s “Big Four” the freedom to have their way with the analog tier, despite promises made to legislators that PEG would be protected. The report language from the hearings and an agreement between the Big Four and Nevada’s cities and counties is rife with promises that PEG channels would be grandfathered into the state agreement. Yet, Charter has chosen to ignore the intent of the lawmakers and its own promises in order to keep its still-dominant market share.

A couple of weeks ago, a Charter-sponsored Reno Gazette-Journal editorial made the point that PEG access was part of an outmoded model and that community access viewers needed to move into the 21st century. But, at the heart of the position dearly held by community access viewers and producers is something that most Americans hope never becomes outdated or old-fashioned—democracy.