Pulling the plug

Telecom law revisions could lead to the demise of community television in Reno—and across the nation

At the Media Center, better known as SNCAT, executive director Vivienne French, right, works in the control room with administrative assistant Jennifer Reed.

At the Media Center, better known as SNCAT, executive director Vivienne French, right, works in the control room with administrative assistant Jennifer Reed.

Photo By David Robert

What, no more Around the Arch, Young Chautauquans or We The People on Charter cable channels in Reno?

Citizen media makers fear that the death of community-access television might be one result of proposed federal telecommunications law revisions that would leave no funding streams for entities like Sierra Nevada Community Access Television.

Telecom law revisions are part of a bill being drafted by Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev. Ensign’s bill is expected to further ease regulations on phone and cable companies. Because Ensign announced the bill before he had a text in hand, speculation ran rampant. He finally introduced the measure on July 27, but the text of the bill hasn’t yet been posted on the Senate Web page. It reads, “The text of S.1504 has not yet been received from GPO [Government Printing Office].” Ensign couldn’t be reached for comment. In a prepared statement, he said, “We must not allow government regulations to be an anchor on the advance of technology if we want America to lead the world in the information age. This bill will create jobs, stimulate the economy, and increase consumer choice.”

The results could range from expanded Internet services and benefits to telecom stockholders (good) to rising cable TV and cell phone bills and less revenue for local governments (not so good).

What no one is talking much about is the impact of the proposed changes on community-access television, that array of programming that lets everyone from cat fanciers to labor unions have their own television shows. One report says Ensign’s bill will preserve community-access channels but remove the cable corporations’ responsibility to fund it.

The revisions, including the possibility of eliminating local franchise fees which pay for community access TV, are marketed as consumer friendly. Critics warn that it’s best to look past the shiny wrapping.

“If you can kill off community-access television in the name of consumer goodness, you are handing a huge windfall to cable companies,” says Andrew Barbano, one of the founding board members of SNCAT in Reno. He and others worry that the move might be another subtle way of shutting up the activists who use community-access television to express messages and ideas outside the mainstream.

“Public-access television is a vital window to viewpoints and images which otherwise would be lost to the ears and eyes and minds of people,” says Sandi Rizzo, a producer of TV shows that question everything from vaccination practices to motivations underlying the Iraq War. “How can we call ourselves a democratic society if there is a drying-up of the source of alternative viewpoints?”

Pay per view
The last time telecommunications were “deregulated,” in 1996, consumer cable prices rose. Large companies, especially those awash in new technology funds, came to control more and more of the market. On the bright side, local government entities retained a tiny bit of control over cable franchises.

In Reno last year, city officials spent months haggling with Charter Communications before finally granting a 15-year franchise to do business here. The city negotiated for, among other things, five cable channels devoted to community access television and continued “franchise fees” paid by the company to the city for Charter’s use of public right-of-ways.

Franchise fees, argue cable providers, hurt the company’s ability to compete with the increasing threat from satellite TV services. That’s the line being offered to the media by Ensign’s office, as well.

Ensign receives plenty of financial support from communications industries. A few highlights from Federal Election Commission contribution records from January 1998 to September 2004: AT&T Wireless ($20,600), Verizon ($15,000) and General Electric ($14,000). Cox, SAVVIS and Time Warner cable companies made the list. So did the National Cable and Telecommuni- cations Association ($5,000).

The broadcast lobby is one of the most powerful in the United States, and many members of Congress fear it because of a belief that local stations will use their news departments against members who vote against their interests. “Because TV stations dictate local coverage,” conservative columnist William Safire once observed, “the broadcast lobby strikes bipartisan terror in officeholders’ hearts.”

To be sure, companies like Charter don’t actually pay the franchise fee. It’s passed along to consumers as an extra $5 charge on their bills. So it’s easy to see how dumping the charge could be considered good for consumers. But, Barbano notes, people will pay one way or another—if not as ratepayers, then as taxpayers for the services required to keep Charter Communications’ rights-of-way up to snuff.

When taxpayers are footing the bill for part of Charter’s infrastructure, that becomes corporate welfare, he warns.

The fees currently add up to about $1.5 million in revenue for the city of Reno. Most of this money goes to the city’s general fund. A small percentage funds community access channels, which broadcast government meetings, TMCC classes and a wide variety of citizen-generated programs. One aspect of Ensign’s bill could shift franchising responsibility from a local to a national level. Without local franchising and local franchise fees, SNCAT’s funding would disappear.

“Ensign isn’t doing cable consumers any favors by trying to remove franchise fees,” Barbano says. “All of this is a very concerted effort by cable companies to continue to remove regulation with one hand and cut costs with the other hand. … Deregulating a monopoly is never a good idea.”

The voice of diversity
On any day of the week, Charter cable subscribers have truly local programming options. They can tune in for council meetings, broadcasts of Artown events and An Appointment with the City Attorney: Resources for Seniors on the city of Reno’s Channel 13. Sparks residents can watch their local government in action on Channel 14. On Channel 17, the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office offers shows like Alternatives to Incarceration and a frequent County News Update.

Channel 16 features the most diverse programming, from spiritual shows touting the Bible, astrology and Eckankar to Environmental Leadership Presents and Nuclear Terror: Where Will It End? Groups can produce their own programs right at the Media Center, the headquarters of SNCAT, without having to run up huge production budgets.

As much as local governments might like having an entire cable channel dedicated to City of Reno, City of Sparks or Washoe County programs, most don’t have the money to keep SNCAT running without the cable company’s franchise fees.

“It would take away our budget,” says Vivienne French, SNCAT’s director.

Though SNCAT doesn’t measure audiences using Neilson or other rating services, SNCAT’s staff knows the programs are reaching a loyal audience. When Mayor Bob Cashell proposed to cut funding for city council meeting broadcasts, viewers were enraged—and let people know.

“We can tell by e-mails and phone calls that people are watching,” French says. “And people come by to get copies of [government meeting] tapes on controversial issues.”

One of the more important aspects of SNCAT these days, she says, is an increasing use of TV programming to offer university or community college courses.

“I think it’s very cool to be able to go to school in your pajamas,” French says. “For people who work or have children, this might be their only way to get an education. That [ability] would suffer terribly.”

Finally, French gets excited about SNCAT’s contribution to democracy—and the number of groups that use the Media Center to create media alternatives.

“This is an opportunity for people to get their messages out locally,” French says. While an increase in available information resources online is becoming increasingly important, television remains a critical medium for many.

“A lot of older people, particularly, television is still their major source of what’s going on in the community,” French says.

In one year, the city of Reno spends around $300,000 on SNCAT. That pays for independent producers to film city council and county commission meetings and for shows like the bimonthly Around the Arch. It also covers staff and facilities of the Media Center, where citizens can be trained to create their own not-for-profit broadcast media. After a reasonably priced training, it’s free to use the Center’s production studio, digital cameras and editing equipment. The content produced is aired at no cost to volunteer producers on Channel 16.

Program to the people
The gargantuan international media monoliths like Time Warner, CBS Viacom, and Gannett have no difficulty being heard. Local filmmakers and community groups and service clubs say there would be no chance of getting their message out without community-access television.

“Public access smacks of ‘grassroots’ and to my understanding of what makes this country great—the chance for activism,” Rizzo says. For example, Rizzo’s shows probe questions surrounding the Iraq War. “Shouldn’t we know through a medium that’s outside the alphabet channels if [American soldiers] are giving their lives for a lasting just cause or political machinations?”

Perhaps for that very reason, community-access television has been making public officials nervous for years. French says some don’t like the minutiae of council meetings broadcast to a larger audience.

Last year, when Cashell suggested dumping SNCAT’s council meeting broadcasts, he said he feared that the theatrical public commentaries of such citizen activists as Sam Dehne during meetings could lead to bad PR for the community.

And then there’s the issue of unfiltered content. When amateur media makers submit a program for broadcast on Channel 16, they’re required to fill out a disclosure form, explaining the content. The Media Center staff uses the form to determine the appropriate time to air the program.

But the staff doesn’t preview or censor content in any way. And they don’t want to do so, for a variety of reasons. For one thing, if the staff began to preview content at all, they could be held liable for the content of every program aired.

For French, the issue goes beyond liability. “It would change the philosophy of public access,” she says. “It’s a freedom of speech issue.”

Of course, freedom of speech seems increasingly at risk in the United States, adds Barbano. He points to recent moves to de-fund public broadcasting or get it under Orwellian control.

“Community-access television is one of the last places of free dissent,” Barbano says. “This is part of the attack on NPR and PBS to shut them up, so they become part of the right-wing attack machine, and people like Bill Moyers don’t get on the air.

“Other than the Internet, what do people have as the last place with totally free speech? Public access television.”