Seattle City Council considers changes to Comcast deal

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by Jonathan Lawson, Reclaim the Media

[a version of this article appears in the April 19 issue of Real Change.]

As Seattle draws closer to inking a new ten-year cable contract with Comcast, community advocates are looking to the City Council to help make the deal more responsive to public priorities. In a welcome move, the Seattle City Council appears interested in making some changes to the proposed franchise agreement which the Mayor's Office of Cable Communications negotiated with Comcast last year (the City Council's approval is required for the agreement to go into effect).

The Council's Energy and Technology Committee (ETC), which has been reviewing the franchise and several related side agreements since last month, will likely recommend more funding for community TV channel SCAN, increasing the channel's annual budget from $650,000 to approximately $700,000 (the Mayor's plan would have cut the budget to $500,000). At least some councilmembers have also expressed strong interest in allowing SCAN to expand its programming onto a sorely-needed second channel; proposed language on these matters is being finalized this week.

Councilmembers are also discussing changes to a side deal which the Mayor's office negotiated with Comcast alongside the official franchise. Under the "Arts Zone" deal, Comcast would provide the city several million dollars for the production of twelve hours of weekly prime-time arts programming to be run on the Seattle Channel.

These preliminary Council actions come following a dramatic outpouring of public comments supporting SCAN, both in the form of letters and emails delivered to the City Council, and public comments addressed to the ETC at a public hearing held at the end of March. Final decisions on these issues will be made by the full City Council; the ETC is expected to finalize its recommendations at its April 26 meeting. If, as expected, the committee then gives the proposed franchise its approval (with changes), the franchise will come before the full Council in May.

As is too often the case in this city, the details of the proposed franchise and side agreements were presented to the public as a fait accompli, at the end of long, nonpublic negotiations. Even with the Council showing willingness to discuss and alter some terms of the Mayor's proposals, public input is still needed to remind policymakers that the public has strong opinions on Comcast, local cable service and especially the local, noncommercial cable channels whose well-being is affected by franchise talks.

Of course, the best time for the city to gather public input about local cable needs was before negotiations began. Two years ago, the city's cable office did conduct mail, phone and Internet surveys to assess the public's cable needs. The survey results showed strong support���about 75%--for community television, and showed substantial interest in increasing channel capacity for public purposes including local community interest programming.

But these priorities are hardly reflected in the deal city negotiators cut with Comcast. Instead, the Mayor's recommended funding plan would have slashed the annual budget of community TV channel SCAN by nearly 25%. The Mayor's office is also strongly resistant to the idea of providing SCAN with additional channel capacity, something that the public clearly wants.

More channel capacity for community TV

The arguments for adding channel capacity to SCAN are fairly straightforward. Already, demand for programs on SCAN (both from producers who want to create shows and from audiences who want to see their favorite shows continue) far exceeds the number of programming slots available. Thus SCAN is forced to assign slots through a ruthless lottery system. As programs cycle on and of the air in the space of months, producers are unable to build an audience, refine their on-air style, or develop funding strategies to support higher-quality programming. A second channel would alleviate this scarcity problem.

A second channel would also allow SCAN management to bundle together the channel's best arts and public affairs programming, raising the station's most attractive profile and making it easier for jurisdictions beyond Seattle to justify pitching in to support the channel (while several cable systems carry SCAN, only Seattle currently funds the channel).

These arguments appear to make sense to the councilmembers who have discussed them, and there is early momemtum behind the idea of pushing the city to provide SCAN an additional channel. The stumbling block remains the Mayor's office, where city officials point out that by adding an additional channel to the analog cable lineup available to everyone, Comcast would need to remove an existing channel. Comcast currently leases back several channels earmarked for public use; this is why we have multiple shopping channels for example. Comcast should turn of one of these to make way for a new local channel. However, Comcast could spitefully choose to snub community TV by turning off something more substantial, and the Mayor's office appears to be unwilling to pick a fight with the cable giant.

City officials also point out that the number of channels used for local programming is not a franchise issue���the franchise sets how many of these channels exist, but the city can make the choice to "activate" these channels at any time. But given the Mayor's office's obstinate resistance to adding a channel for SCAN, it is clear that the Council's leadership is sorely needed in this area, and the consideration of the cable franchise is the right context.

More local arts programming AND more government accountability programming

While most of us can agree that $5 million in funding for local arts TV programming is a
great offer no matter what its source, the Seattle Channel's "Arts Zone" side agreement has several deep flaws in how it is structured, and the City Council should address these with great care before accepting it as-is. As numerous observers have pointed out, twelve hours of (Comcast-branded) new arts programming would necessarily displace twelve hours of other programming on the channel whose primary purpose is to enhance government accountability by providing public access to the functions of local government.

Some proponents of the Arts Zone agreement claim that they are representing a community desire to extend the Seattle Channel's arts offerings; however, the survey results reported by the cable office demonstrate no such desire. On the contrary, as community media activist Mike Weisman noted in his comments to the Council, survey respondents asked for "more government programming ��� and I'm talking about hearings, board and commission meetings, meetings out in the neighborhoods." Weisman argues that the city should institute an additional channel for the new programming. "The problem with the Arts Zone concept as its currently proposed is that it creates an artificial drought that would push the important role of [the Seattle Channel] off to the side."

The Seattle Community Council Federation has proposed an amendment which would sensibly require the Seattle Channel to devote a certain number of hours per week to its core mission of government accountability programming. The amendment would also allow ArtsZone programming to be aired on any channel, rather than being restricted to the Seattle Channel.

The Arts Zone agreement, hatched and negotiated in secret, was presented to the public as an unmodifiable done deal. But the Council should consider a field of options about where such programming should reside. While analog channels of the type SCAN seeks are a limited resource, channel capacity on Comcast's digital tier is less scarce; perhaps the city should institute a digital "Seattle Arts Channel." Another possibility with merit would be to add a single analog channel which could carry both the new Arts Zone programming and serve as a "curated" second channel for SCAN. Such a hybrid channel would respond meaningfully to the public's desire for more local government and community access programming and would provide strong encouragement and even competition among SCAN's independent producers to create professional-quality programs.

The time is right for local individuals and community groups to share concerns with their elected representatives. The City Council���s Energy and Technology Committee will vote on the franchise agreement April 26; the franchise will come before the full council in May. Contact information for all City Council members is here; continue sending your comments to ETC chair Jean Godden, but other councilmembers also need to be aware of public support for community television and a strong franchise. Write or phone their ofices directly as well. Ask them to:

* Raise the franchise fee to increase SCAN's budget
* Tell the Mayor's office to provide an additional analog channel for SCAN without delay
* Pass the Community Council's proposed resolution to preserve local government accountability programming
* Keep Comcast-branded ArtsZone programming off the Seattle Channel
* Protect labor rights of local employees

article originally published at .
The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey