Andy's Blog: CABLE ACCESS: Media Whipping Child? - The Long Background

To watch or hear TruthToTell's program on this topic of funding cable access which aired live on October 3rd, click HERE.

In the late 1970’s and early 80’s, a fairly large number of cable companies were suddenly formed to provide cable television service to large urban areas. Technology innovations and the new, vastly expanded numbers of channels and cable programming capacity spawned an explosion in the highly profitable business of providing television shows of ever widening varieties to the densely populated urban centers. For years, cable (or CATV) was a creature of remote rural areas where over-the-air television signals from distant broadcasters simply could not be pulled in with home television sets alone. They needed very high towers and antennas to receive those signals then retransmit them to small town residences.

This was a technological gold rush that meant billions in future revenues as entertainment and information channel multiplied exponentially. Cable companies came forward in great quantities, hiring local politicians and influential citizens by the thousands to represent them or lobby for their selection as a given city’s or city cluster’s exclusive vendor to wire the urban core and beyond. Some states quickly passed laws to regulate them.

The huge potential for these massive money-making machines in all the major cities, including Minneapolis and St. Paul, created a tidal wave of applications from cable operators to string their coaxial cables up and down the rights of way just as telephone companies and electric utilities had nearly a century earlier. That meant a major pay-off to cities or groups of cities or suburbs through the franchise fees collected from using those rights of way, fees similar to those also paid by the other utilities.

Such a latent revenue windfall to local coffers also brought community communications  advocates out of the woodwork and into the highly competitive and money-loaded franchising process. Most of the franchising agreements offered by cable companies promised copious amounts of money, equipment and numbers of channels for public, educational and governmental access. Cities hired cable administrators and created cable communications departments.

That the promise of a tidal wave of community programming and hundreds of access producers in thousands of local institutions was thwarted by a variety of problems confronting the organizations and cities overseeing their governance, operation and production capabilities was but one cluster of barriers to real access.

But local egos and power manipulations among interested groups were nothing compared to the relative immediacy of many large cable operators across the urban and metropolitan landscape suddenly challenging their young franchise agreements in court as imposing on their First Amendment rights to operate without regulation at all. They quickly saw just how much more money they could make if they weren’t saddled with keeping their own promises to put money, equipment and studios into the hands of common citizens or to give up lucrative channels to non-paying customers.

The industry spent millions seeking nullification of their regulatory shackles at the city level, especially. Some courts concurred. Others did not, but the upshot was that the reins of control AND of at least some access channels among the hundreds of others earning billions for local cable companies and their exclusive right to pipe increasingly expensive signals throughout the city, began slipping away, much as broadcasting became deregulated under the FCC. Cable companies also merged by the dozens, creating about three or four huge cable conglomerates, like Comcast here in Minnesota. Not much is owned by anyone else around here.

Of course, real access meant shackle-free programs – programs presenting individual opinions or sometimes tasteless shows, some quite offensive to some viewer sensibilities. And some went after the very elected officials who control access budgets or franchise fee distributions each year – sort of biting the hand, as it were.

But not all. Some institutions – like those in education, faith communities and labor – set up regularly produced and widely viewed programs of instruction or commentary or services. Cities themselves have created elaborate cable telecasting operations – feeding their designated channels with city council and committee meetings and public hearings.

And most cable access corporations – like Minneapolis Telecommunications Network – or MTN - and St. Paul Neighborhood Network (or SPNN) – wound up taking over franchise-mandated local origination, or community programming duties the cable companies themselves gladly gave up – the professional side of cable access.

Urban and suburban cable access nonprofits have toiled in  the trenches under increasing pressure to cut back, even though cities based their franchise approvals on the very idea that community channels and production facilities would be provided. With much distance – 30 years in some cases – twixt cup and the lip – between original franchise agreements and today. Despite continued attempts at deregulating local cable, franchise fees have held or increased while cable access funding has retreated, leaving cable access organizations to fend more and more for themselves, mostly through grants and user fees – assessed nonprofits who want the cable access group to produce programs or provide studio time and talent to do so themselves.

Minneapolis is one city where the purse strings are in solid control of the mayor and city council, essentially making MTN a city department, subject to the political whims of its overseers almost as much as its appropriation. If powerful city politicians wish to express their disdain for an entity like MTN which allows First-Amendment-protected criticism or R-Rated content to air, they may well – and perhaps have – made it tougher and tougher for MTN to live up to its mission as giving voice to its many community voices – some of which are the voices of discontent with the status quo in City Hall.

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