June 5, 2004. "Access Deterred",
By Travis Durfee
Access Deterred: Many local governments fail to offer
adequate public access to cable, but advocates aim to change that
Steve Pierce has a vision. One day in the near future, Pierce foresees
public-access cable channels throughout the Capital Region flourishing
as the vibrant electronic democracies they could be, their schedules
filled with locally produced documentaries and talk shows on issues
of local interest; rebroadcasts of cultural events from the regions
numerous colleges and universities; and local city-council and school-board
meetings broadcast like CSPAN, live with multiple camera angles,
speaker IDs and subject headings.
As an independent-media advocate and instructor in the department
of science and technology studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute,
Pierce knows that New York state law requires cable service providers
to set aside public-access channels for home-grown programming.
The states laws also give municipalities the opportunity to
enter into contracts known as franchise agreements with these companies,
whereby the cable-service providers must give up to 5 percent of
their revenues to local governments. But Pierce also knows that
the system is flawed: Though cable companies are required to give
money to localities, those governments are not required to spend
the money on public-access broadcasting. Therefore, most do not.
There is a public resource here that can be put into place
without a huge investment from the cities side, Pierce
says. It is like money in the bank that people are not aware
Pierce sees a lost opportunity, and he is not alone; he and a number
of concerned citizens and community groups throughout the Capital
Region have been lobbying their elected officials recently for better
funding, facilities and equipment for public-access ventures as
their governments begin the tedious and complicated process of renegotiating
their cable agreements.
New York state law requires local governments to renegotiate their
contracts with the their cable-service providers at least once every
10 years. And for a number of communities the time has come: Albanys
contract with Time Warner is up in 2004, Troys contract lapsed
three years ago (negotiations are still in progress), and Saratogas
expires in 2004 as well. Cable-access advocates in each of these
communities say that none currently has a functioning public-television
system, and they are all looking for better deals this time around.
In Albany, for example, the city last negotiated a franchise agreement
with Time Warner in 1994 and asked for 5 percent of the companys
gross annual revenues, the maximum allowed by state law. The city
received $947,460 and $953,758 in franchise fees from Time Warner
in 2001 and 2002 respectively. But over the past 10 years, the city
spent only a fraction of what it received on public-access television:
$100,000 on a media-education program at the College of Saint Rose
that is open to Albany High School students, but not the public.
There is a need [for public access] for groups in these communities
that want to encourage their activities, said Aimee Allaud,
an Albany resident and member of the Council of Albany Neighborhood
Associations. These channels could provide a vehicle for those
ends. But [the current system] is set up so that there is barrier
after barrier to making this work.
As Allaud explained, CANA used to tape its meetings to be aired
on the citys designated public-access channels16, 17
and 18but the number of hoops the organization had to jump
through to air the meetings led the group to abandon the process.
When we were participating in this ridiculous little scheme,
we had to borrow the equipment from Bethlehem, get the tape edited
at Saint Rose, then run it out to Time Warners [old] building
on Washington Avenue to get it aired, Allaud said. And
there were a number of barriers thereyou have to fill out
a permission form, you never know when the program is going to be
aired, you cant publicize your shows. [The system] is virtually
useless in this effect.
On April 28, CANA addressed a letter to Mayor Jerry Jennings asking
him to appoint a citizens commission to work with the Common Council
as it formulates a plan for public access. Allaud said the mayors
office never responded.
Allaud, other CANA members and Albany residents attended two public
meetings held by the citys Public Authorities and Utilities
Committee to discuss the future of public-access television in the
Alderman Michael OBrien (Ward 12), who is vice chairman of
the Public Authorities and Utilities Committee, said the committee
is still in the information-gathering phase, but he hopes it will
appoint a citizens council to present the issues to the council
and the mayor.
Elsewhere in the Capital Region, local governments have taken more
forward steps in negotiating their franchise agreements. Saratogas
City Council approved a motion on June 4 to hire a field organizer
to gather ideas and explore funding options to expand the citys
public access. The city of Troy recently hired a professional cable-franchise
contract negotiator from Sacramento, Calif.
Pierce, who has worked with the city officials in Troy on the issue,
urged the city of Albany to use a negotiator to ensure that the
renegotiation process is as lucrative as possible.
Unfortunately, the way it unfolds in New York state,
said Pierce, is you have a multinational media giant that
negotiates every day around the world using various kinds of lawyers
cutting a deal with municipalities that have done this maybe once
every 10 years and who are on the ropes financially. It is a very
unfair playing field.
It is really a travesty that the state capital of the third
or fourth largest state [in the nation] doesnt have public
access, Pierce said. It doesnt quite have the
feeling of being at the forefront in this realm. Theyve got
a great pedestrian bridge over 787 and some great live music, but
in terms of media it is not quite there.