Media Politics: Chump Change for King County

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by Jonathan Lawson

[note: thankfully, the King County Council did not choose to extend Comcast's franchise on Dec. 15; but has postponed the decision, first through Jan. 20, then again with no end date. A decision is expected by the end of February 2004.]

King County cable subscribers are probably about to suffer a major loss in the cable service they���re paying for, as government officials quietly sell out valuable technology access for chump change. In fact, it may have happened by the time you���re reading this, if the King County Council rushes forward as expected with a proposal to extend Comcast���s cable monopoly, under terms extremely favorable to the company. If the county government chooses the quick payoff over longer-term solutions which give the government (and cable subscribers) more power, it could set a bad precedent for other communities in the region also trying to get the most for their cable subscribers��� money.

Under the proposed extension, which Councilmembers rushed into play two weeks ago, with a vote scheduled on Dec. 15, the county would extend Comcast���s ten year franchise agreement for five additional years--or until 2010. The cash-strapped county government would get a one-time payoff of $1.2 million. But it���s the additional details which have citizen observers and public access advocates aligned against the deal.

In return for the $1.2 million extension payment, King County would give up use of five channels reserved for public access, educational and governmental use. The county has (shamefully) never made use of these channels intended for local, noncommercial programming. Comcast would be able to fill them with infomercials, home shopping channels or other moneymaking fare. Under the deal, the county would also relinquish its claim on future use of a wide swath of digital bandwidth���the equivalent of several more broadcast channels, or which could be used for public broadband Internet use.

The extra noncommercial channels which the county is poised to give up may not be missed by the county���s cable subscribers, since the county government has never provided programming for those channels, instead leaving them dark. The county government has also largely been asleep at the wheel in its enforcement of Comcast���s (formerly AT&T Broadband, formerly TCI Cable) contractual obligations to the county under the existing agreement, which are supposed to include the provision of a mobile van for public access TV production, and connections to the county's fiber optic Internet. Comcast has never lived up to these commitments, but King County���s proposal to extend the company���s franchise overlooks entirely the company���s abysmal record of noncompliance, effectively rewarding them for past contract violations.

It���s true that these are lean times for local governments, making hefty payouts from corporations quite attractive. This week, Tacoma���s City Council is voting on a plan to rename the Tacoma Dome the ���Comcast Dome.��� Pricetag: $7 million. The $1.2 million payoff Comcast has offered King County may also sound like a lot of money. It���s not, considering the technology resources they���d be getting back in return.

According to documents filed by Comcast in its recent unsuccessful lawsuit against the city of San Jose, the company estimated that a single cable channel had a value of $2.16 million per year. The $1.2 million Comcast is offering King County for five channels works out to about $48,000 per channel per year. That���s compared to the roughly $1.08 million Comcast says each channel ought to be worth (adjusted for the relative size of the two markets). In short, King County is being offered a sucker deal, less than five cents on the dollar. Chump change, on top of a trail of broken promises and short-changing local noncommercial programming.

Comcast is by far the country���s largest cable provider; at any given time the company is negotiating hundreds of local cable contracts. The company is happiest when municipalities follow Comcast���s lead in negotiations���not being pushy, not making pesky demands for public access channels, open access guarantees for consumer choice, and other such frills. The company is less pleased when local governments actually choose to represent the interests of cable consumers, figuring out what local communities��� needs are for cable programming and Internet services and aggressively negotiating on their behalf.

This latter course of action requires a local government to conduct a public ascertainment���an investigative process to determine basic service requirements (including educational and public access channels, municipal Internet access, etc.). With the results of such an ascertainment in hand, a local government can legally force a cable provider like Comcast to provide better service. This is how San Jose won, and successfully defended, a strong contract with Comcast. Without an ascertainment, as the King County case shows, the government has very little or no bargaining power, and is likely to be forced into a bad deal.

Last winter, the King County Council considered a proposal by Executive Ron Sims to extend Comcast���s franchise by three years. That proposal was already a bad deal���failing to address Comcast���s poor compliance record���and was eventually shelved. A year later, the County has failed to conduct even a basic public ascertainment, and as a result, appears to be stuck with a substantially worse deal than the one they rejected last year. The winner is Comcast. The losers, as usual, are local citizens.

The City of Seattle���s own current contract with Comcast expires in 2006; renewal talks will likely begin next year. The months ahead will determine whether the city can learn the lessons of San Jose by preparing for franchise negotiations with a public technology assessment, or whether it will repeat the mistakes King County probably made this week, willfully bowing before Comcast���s corporate steamroller.

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