The Wednesday after Labor Day, the Tucson City Council has scheduled a public hearing on a new franchise contract with Cox Communications, the city’s monopoly cable provider.
It’s fairly ministerial but some of it has Access Tucson – the nonprofit that provides public access programming on the Cox system – concerned enough that it wants the city to pull the item for revision. [Read the draft agreement: Cox License Agreement Draft]
Access Tucson’s concerns are legitimate and the council would be wise to heed them. [Read Access Tucson letter to city attorney: Rankin Letter re Cox Agreement August 2011] The biggest issue is mostly self-serving in that the new contract pushes two of the public access channels to the digital tier of Cox’s service, meaning basic cable subscribers (which comprise about a quarter of all Cox subscribers, according to Access Tucson) won’t get those channels.
Chances of changing that are slim. Access Tucson says state law requires all public access channels be on the basic cable tier but the City Attorney says the law only allows cities to require four channels total and only two of them can be on the basic tier
The law, passed in 2006, resulted from intense cable industry lobbying led by Cox, the third-largest cable provider in the country and the largest in Arizona. Cable companies are under pressure to pack more signal into every cable in order to carry more channels, especially HD channels, and remain competitive with satellite and internet content providers.
Cable companies need every hertz they can squeeze out of coaxial cable. Public access channels suck up bandwidth cable companies desperately want. The industry has been intensely lobbying federal and state governments to restrict or even eliminate them entirely.
The federal government requires cable companies provide public channels in exchange for the right to monopoly and the use of public rights of way to run cable into homes.
Some large communities have robust public access channels, namely New York. Other communities barely make use of public channels. Pima County, for instance, requires very little of Comcast, the major cable provider outside of the city of Tucson. In Tucson, besides Access Tucson, the city has its own programming – Channel 12 – and requires Cox to provide channels for TUSD, Pima Community College and the University of Arizona.
Access Tucson was on the path of robustness until the winds turned against it last decade. In addition to industry lobbying against public access, the recent city budget crisis has eviscerated Access Tucson’s funding and it appeared on the verge of collapsing last year when its longtime executive director resigned.
But new executive director Lisa Horner and board president Bob Kovitz are determined to bring Access Tucson back. As they see it, community broadcasting is more important than ever as major media outlets shrink or close. They can provide a diversity of voices about matters of public concern that might be ignored or are given short shrift in the dominant, for-profit media. Moreover, it’s the public that decides what’s a matter of public concern on public cable and not gatekeepers at a corporate media company.
But producing watchable content is expensive. Any monkey can create a YouTube video; creating a professional program costs money. Studios, cameras, lights, sound and video mixing boards and the like are expensive.
And that raises Access Tucson’s other major concern.
As part of the new agreement, Cox has to pay a tax for use of the city’s right of way. But according to Access Tucson, an audit of Cox a few years ago found it had shorted the city about $2 million.
The problem, as Horner and Kovitz see it but apparently not the city, is bundling. Cable companies now offer more than cable TV. They also offer high-speed Internet and telephone and let subscribers pay one bill for all of it. The franchise fee the city charges can only be applied to the cable TV service. So what percentage of the bundled services fee goes toward cable TV?
That would seem a vital piece of information in order for the city to make sure it gets the full amount of its tax but the contract essentially puts Cox in charge of determining that.
That makes no sense. The contract needs the teeth of an annual audit. It also needs performance accountability. The current contract with Cox requires it provide video-on-demand services for public channels, but it never did. It faced no penalty for essentially ignoring that portion of the current contract, which Kovitz and Horner say the city should take into consideration when deciding whether to trust Cox’s word that it’s paying every bit of the tax.
As for the tax, the city also needs to make a commitment to provide more funding to the pubic access system. Every Cox subscriber gets a bill that itemizes the fee, labeling it a public access tax. Yet barely 10 percent of what the city collects from Cox goes toward public access. The city sweeps the rest into its general fund to pay for cops, roads and parks and the like.
If the city is going to collect a public access tax it should use the money to pay for public access programming.
Cable companies make profits over the use of public property and grants of monopoly. The public should get a benefit in return and one of those should be the public programming federal and state laws require.