Marin and Comcast reach cable franchise agreement

by David Mathison, Be the Media

Marin County, California has finally reached an agreement with Comcast Corporation to provide cable TV services, after a negotiation that spanned 6 years and 3 cable companies - [Viacom], TCI, AT&T and finally, Comcast. Marin's cable agreement expired years ago, but continued on a monthly basis during the negotiation. Congratulations to the members of the Marin Telecommunications Agency (MTA) and the Media Access Advisory Committee (MAAC), consultant Tom Robinson and attorney Greg Stepanichich.

The members of Media Action Marin (MAM) were instrumental in getting community support and input into this important, 10-year contract. Special thanks go to MAM member Tica Lyons - the activist's activist - who persistently and tenaciously fought for the public interest, a mostly thankless and lonely task for many years. Their activism helped Marin get a Community Media Center, which was especially difficult in light of the nefarious pending state and federal legislation that threatens public access and local control over video franchise negotiations.

Marin negotiated with the Philadelphia-based Comcast through the Marin Telecommunications Agency (MTA), a joint powers authority (JPA) with locally elected representatives from the County and 10 Marin cities (not including Novato and West Marin, which have separate franchises): Belvedere, Corte Madera, Fairfax, Larkspur, Mill Valley, Ross, San Anselmo, San Rafael, Sausalito and Tiburon.

As per the federal Telecommunications Act, Comcast will continue to pay Marin towns and the county 5% of gross cable revenues as a franchise fee for 'rights-of-way' rent to use Marin's streets and conduits to lay cable. While many US cities use these fees to support Public Access operations, Marin towns and the county put this approximately $2.5 million annual payment back into their general funds.

For example, six out of seven California cable franchises negotiated between 1996-2002 allocated from 20-70% of their 5% franchise fees to operate PEG channels. It is akin to having a bridge toll, but using the toll revenues to fund a town's operations instead of upkeep and maintenance of the bridge - eventually the bridge deteriorates.

Key features of the contract include:

* $3 million: For the construction, remodeling, equipment, and transitional start-up needs for an independently run, non-profit Marin Community Media Center (MCMC or MC2) to operate three PEG channels. The new MCMC will administer all PEG programs, store, maintain and allocate use of equipment, train personnel for all channels, schedule programming and operate the channels.

* Three PEG Channels: One channel each for Public, Education and Government use. Currently, Marin has just one public access channel (CH26), which only offers 5 hours per day of public content, and is run (poorly) by Comcast, not the public. Currently, Marin has no Education nor Government channels. The option for three more PEG channels will be triggered when Comcast moves from analog to digital transmission, and certain PEG milestones are reached.

* $1 million: For a high-speed fiber-optic Institutional Network or "I-Net" that will interconnect 31 Marin public agencies, schools and libraries capable of TV broadcasts of city council meetings and emergency alerts.

Marin's 62,000 cable subscribers will see a $0.60 increase in their monthly cable bills over the life of the 10-year franchise to offset Comcast's upfront payment of ~$4 million - Comcast really hasn't 'given' Marin much of anything - the cable subscriber community ultimately pays.

Other sticking points in the franchise agreement for community media advocates included:

* FM: Comcast arbitrarily and unilaterally discontinued FM service in 2005, causing outrage among Marin cable subscribers. The continuation of the FM service was not formally included in the franchise agreement, but ended up in a side letter with no commitment from Comcast to maintain FM availability in the future

* Low-income and senior discounts: Comcast didn't budge past the existing commitments to low-income discounts

* 3 PEG channels: Marin will get 3 PEG channels, as opposed to the current one part-time 'P' channel run by Comcast, with an option for 3 more. MAM felt Marin should have been allocated 6 channels right away, and more during the transition from analog to digital transmission.

* Operational funding: Media Action Marin proposed a 'viewer choice' opt-out mechanism on cable bills to support on-going operations of MCMC, but Comcast refused and the MTA didn't push the matter

* Wage protections for Comcast employees were not included

* Deeper consumer protections were not considered

Next steps? Community media advocates now move from an adversarial relationship in the negotiation with Comcast to a consensus-building phase in trying to get local support and input into a new Marin Institution - the Marin Community Media Center, and to help get content providers for the Public, Education and Government channels. This is a very exciting time for Marin Public Access!

Marin community media advocates are now gearing up to help:

* Hire a full-time Executive Director for the Marin Telecommunications Agency

* Hire an interim director for the Community Media Center, then a full-time Executive Director

* Solidify a relationship with a 'Facilities Partner' to host the Community Media Center - possibly the College of Marin or Dominican University

* Ensure that the MTA abides by its own by-laws and includes a Treasurer at their meetings for both good government and checks-and-balances. The Treasurer should be responsible for assuring that the $3 million dollar grant from Comcast will go towards the Media Center and not the town's general funds.

* Vet a locally-elected Board of Directors for the Marin Community Media Center. The Board will consist of representatives from the following groupings:
- Program producers
- Nonprofit organizations representing multicultural and multiethnic populations
- Youth
- Arts organizations
- 'Overarching' business groups
- 'Overarching' nonprofit groups
- Subscribers and viewers
- Education community
- The Marin Telecommunications Agency
- 'At-large' members

Media Action Marin will host a series for community leaders to explain the benefits of the Community Media Center starting this Fall at Book Passage. For more information, visit http://www.mediaactionmarin.org.

This franchise agreement process and the creation of the Marin Community Media Center was documented in a chapter entitled "How To Create A Community Media Center" in the upcoming book, BE THE MEDIA, due out later this year http://www.bethemedia.com/tableofcontents.htm.

Congratulations again to Media Action Marin for a fine job of community media activism!

article originally published at http://www.bethemedia.org/2006/08/marin_and_comca.html.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey