The fight for local TV in California

by Kate Woods, The Pinnacle

Don't look now, but if you live in Gilroy, Hollister or San Juan Bautista, California, you're on the verge of losing the few stations on your cable menu that give you what you want.

Channels 17, 18, 19 and 20 are the local CMAP channels that give you live, professional coverage of your teenager's football game, in-studio classes for painting and physical therapy, music and even emergency alerts from the front lines of a nearby catastrophe.

CMAP, which stands for Community Media Access Partnership, is the station that brings every local city council and supervisors' meeting into the homes of cable users, where viewers can scream privately at the local lawmakers without making a public scene. It's also the station that teaches locals how to create and produce their own shows.

All that could change with new legislation on both the federal and state levels that would, essentially, allow powerful phone companies Verizon and AT&T to get into the cable TV game at the expense of community TV stations. Verizon and AT&T are already cozy with the federal government, having opened up customers' records without a warrant to the National Security Agency.

At the forefront of this war is CMAP's director Suzanne Saint John-Crane, who has been in the local access business for 15 years.

If the phone companies, and more recently the cable companies, and their political patrons win, it means the end of CMAP, Saint John-Crane believes.

"If they win, we could close," she said, speaking from her office in the CMAP studios at Gavilan Community College in Gilroy. "The three cities of Gilroy, San Juan and Hollister spent years negotiating with the cable company that says a portion of this service has to go back to fund community cable. All that negotiating goes out the window."

For the past year, Saint John-Crane has spent every spare moment and more on trips to Sacramento and Washington D.C. to inform representatives on what's at stake, not an easy feat as the career woman juggles a family with a new toddler. It's frustrating for her and her colleagues because there has been little exposed about the struggle in the news.

That could be because only 35 percent of households (13,000 homes) in CMAP's footprint get the service, as media mogul Rupert Murdoch's DirecTV and the rest of the satellite industry gain more of the market with every passing year.

It's no wonder the tireless CMAP chief is neck-deep in this fight. Saint John explains that CMAP of Gilroy is a new model that other state public access channels have emulated, and it's one of the last franchises of its kind in California.

"And what happens in California sets the tone for the rest of the country," Saint John said. "It's like David and Goliath."

Double the corporate welfare
The fight over control of public access media comes replete with fat campaign contributions to those politicians sponsoring the new bills, a lack of understanding by both consumers and lawmakers, and a liberal use of a tool so prevalent in politics today - the Orwellian vernacular.

For those trying to keep public access TV truly public, they've seen it all before. On the federal level, the House bill, which recently passed, is regarded as an updated version of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which was supposed to spur competition and lower prices to consumers.

Opponents say just the opposite happened. According to SaveAccess, a national organization against the bills, the 1996 Telecom Act was ballyhooed as a job-maker that would herald a golden economic era: its backers touted it would create 1.4 million jobs and a $2 trillion-dollar boost to the nation's gross domestic product.

"But by 2003, elected officials were referring to a $2 trillion dollar loss in the marketplace value of companies in the telecommunications sector, and a loss of 500,000 jobs between 2001 and 2003," according to the SaveAccess.

In addition, cable rates rose by 50 percent and local phone rates went up by more than 20 percent. Local radio stations folded and now Clear Channel alone owns more than 1,200 stations. The group estimates about 10,000 people lost their jobs because of the takeovers.

"Both (the House and Senate bills) would give the Bells new incentives in the form of national franchises with no 'build-out' requirements for states or cities to be fully wired," writes Bruce Kushnick, a telecom analyst who directs Teletruth, an independent customer advocacy group focusing on broadband and telecom issues. "The cable companies currently have local franchises, where the companies have to meet specific requirements for local provisioning, such as local access channels. This new corporate 'one size fits all' national franchise is not about customers but about expediency and lack of community services, as the House bill allows the new entrants (that is, the phone companies) not to worry about local, existing obligations."

Ironically, the House bill is named COPE - the Communications, Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement Act of 2006, sponsored by Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas). The Senate bill has an equally dubious title: Communications, Consumer's Choice, and Broadband Deployment Act of 2006, otherwise known as the Steven's Bill because it is being pushed by Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska).

"The phone companies have had extensive financial incentives before, but they have never fulfilled their obligations," Kushnick stated. "Rewarding them for such a record is brazen, and raises the question of whether Capitol Hill lawmakers are in cahoots with the telecoms."

Pork and pricy beans
What the texts of these bills don't tell people is that their sponsors have reaped hefty campaign contributions from those corporations drooling over passage. Save Access reports Democratic House co-sponsor Rep. Bobby Rush of Illinois received a $1 million for a pet pork project, a nonprofit community center, from an AT&T/SBC foundation over the past five years.

In addition, an entire section of the bill is devoted to satellite services to be used in Alaska and Hawaii. TVPredictions, an online publication about new TV technologies, recently reported how a significant portion of Stevens's campaign contributions come from Rupert Murdoch's empire, including DirecTV. The report went on to say that Senator Stevens has not commented on the contributions.

On the state level, local access advocates are fighting AB 2987 - a designation that Saint John says is "seered into her mind." The bill, she says, will take away two-thirds of CMAP's budget and possibly close the station, as well as dozens of others throughout the state. A recent amendment to the Assembly bill designates the California Public Utilities Commission as the lead bureaucracy over the new state franchise, which the telephone companies would hold.

"That means when, say, a consumer like Ruth Erickson (of Hollister) is having a problem with her cable, she calls Clay Lee (Public Utilities Manager of Hollister)," said Saint John. "There's a person to deal with it. So under the new law she would have to call the PUC. They would be it!"

"The driving force behind AB 2987 is the telephone industry," Saint John added.

Kushnick agrees, and says the phone companies haven't lived up to their commitments.

"In California, the big thing is that the Pac Bell made promises to have the state rewired and never did it and that any plan SBC has put forward, like Lightspeed, is simply a crippled network and can't compete with anything being offered today in Asia," he told The Pinnacle.

Saint John goes on to note that the two Democratic Assembly representatives pushing the bill, Speaker of the House Fabian Nunez and Lloyd Levine, Chair of the Assembly Utilities and Commerce Committee, represents districts that are in the Los Angeles basin - where there are no community access stations, also known as PEG channels (Public, Education and Government access).

"They've never stepped into a community access station," Saint John said. "And AT&T is Fabian Nunez' biggest campaign contributor."

Stomping on Astroturf
According to the progressive educational advocates, Common Cause, there's a new "wolf in sheep's clothing" in the fight over local cable access. They are so-called "consumer advocates" paid for by the telephone companies, that pro-PEG fighters call "Astroturf lobbyists."

Saint John has had her own run-ins with the phenomena. Recognized as a national leader in the fight against the new legislation, Saint John was due last May to testify before a televised Senate hearing on the issue in Washington DC. At the last minute before the hearing, the group Saint John is involved in - the 30-year Alliance for Community Media - was pulled out of the testifying line-up and replaced with an Astroturf group called Video Access Alliance, made up of "concerned consumers" whom Saint John and many other true consumer groups say are paid by Verizon and AT&T.

"The frustrating thing was that there was no representative there testifying on behalf of community TV," Saint John said. "And the creepy thing is that Astroturf group sounds the same as the name of our group."

When she got bumped off the list, Saint John called the office of Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif), who was on the Senate panel. Saint John armed herself with the transcripts of the House hearing that had occurred earlier this year, when Rep. Ed Markey exposed a woman who posed as a consumer advocate but who really represented the same Astroturf group that replaced Saint John's group. Now the same woman was talking before the Senate committee.

As the proceedings unraveled on a Web cast in her Watsonville home, Saint John frantically emailed to the blackberry of Boxer' aide, who then fed Boxer pertinent questions posed by Saint John. Contending with an unruly two-year-old, her husband baffled by the scene, Saint John watched the Web cast as one-by-one the senators asked the Astroturf woman innocuous questions, with Boxer's turn coming down the line.

"Markey had exposed her as a paid consultant for the telephone companies, and I was trying to alert Boxer of this," Saint John said. "I'm trying as fast as I can to type and by the time it came to Boxer she clearly had done her homework. Her assistant was handing my comments to her while my 2-year-old is screaming and my husband is, like, 'what in hell is going on?'"

In the end, Boxer exposed the woman as well. It was a small victory in a war that pits powerful corporations against local control of community TV.

Bake sales not enough
Saint John explains that CMAP's budget is $300,000 and should the state legislation pass, 75 percent of that will be cut with a mandate that it be plowed into capital, with no expenses for salaries, insurance or public training. Recently, a Verizon representative suggested she obtain the money for operating costs from local city governments.

"I invited him to a Hollister City Council meeting and ask that of Mayor Robbie Scattini," she laughed.

The Verizon guy declined.

"Bake sales and silent auctions won't cut it," she said. "I can write grants to produce videos, at maybe $6,000 a year. But there are no foundations that sponsor costs for our industry. It's not the answer."

"Honestly, I just want to go back to my desk and do my job," added Saint John. "But if you don't speak up, your representatives won't do the right thing."

For more information on the fight to keep local access cable local, go to the CMAP web site at http://www.mycmap.org/

article originally published at http://www.pinnaclenews.com/news/contentview.asp?c=192197.

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