Video franchise proposal puts community TV at risk

by Patrick Corcoran, Schaumberg Review

Public access television providers in Chicago are worried they'll be lost in the shuffle stemming from AT&T's video network proposal.

AT&T is proposing in some Chicago markets to provide phone, Internet and television service, similar to cable franchises. But since AT&T's services will be offered via telephone and not cable lines, AT&T asserts it should not be held to long-standing cable franchise agreements.

It's these agreements that, among other guarantees, provide public access programs such as local calendar listings, the village's Fourth of July parade coverage, broadcasts of public meetings, and original programming.

Barbara Popovic, executive director of Chicago Access Network Television (CAN-TV), Chicago's public access network, says that AT&T is attempting an end run around the rules that protect public access networks.

"The implications of this are far-reaching. At the heart of it, they want to find a way to dismantle the existing franchise agreements," she said. "What they are saying is, 'We want it our way or the highway,' and you're seeing that played out with these lawsuits they are filing against municipalities who refuse to cooperate with them."

Marc Blakeman, AT&T Illinois' regional vice president for external affairs, said that AT&T would be willing to enter into local agreements with municipalities, which would include paying a 5 percent fee, similar to cable franchise fees, and a 1 percent fee to support public access TV.

It's build-out requirements that the company has been resistant to.

Like the other public access networks that can be found across the suburbs, CAN-TV has broadcast numerous local government meetings and events since its inception almost 20 years ago. While some public access channels exist in relative obscurity, CAN-TV -- with a $2.6 million annual budget -- does not. On its five channels, CAN-TV provides more than 130 hours of original, or non-repeat, programming weekly, such as the popular kids dance show "Chic-A-Go-Go."

Under its cable franchise agreements, CAN-TV is entitled to 10 percent of the total viewable cable bandwidth.

Though some of its broadcasts are lighter fare, such as talk shows or locally produced music videos, Popovic said some programming offers information about economic development, housing, health care, and HIV/AIDS. CAN-TV not only connects organizations with volunteers, but also links the people in need of services with the organizations that can help them, she said.

"We're giving the viewers something that is much different than what is out there in that we're changing the way viewers interact with television as powerful communication tool ... from a profit driven, entertainment or sports-based model to something that is firmly community-based, with content driven and even created by local residents" she said.

Ross Rowe, cable production coordinator for Elk Grove Village Channel 6, said he's concerned by the fact that AT&T wants to bypass local authorities.

"They're claiming local governments are impeding them from providing services, but they simply don't want to go through that process, even though there is nothing wrong with it," Rowe said.

In addition to Village Board and Park Board meetings, press conferences and other special events, EGTV Channel 6 broadcasts about 15 hours of original programming each month. While AT&T has said they will be willing to provide public access channels, they have not promised to provide the support necessary to run those channels, Rowe said.

"These are issues that a lot of people are talking about," he said.

Among Popovic's biggest worries if franchise agreements are set aside, then public access would be relegated to the Internet, which would put it at a major competitive disadvantage with other networks, she said.

"This type of community-based programming must be available in the same way that a broadcast coming from CBS or NBC or any of the other big guys is available to viewers," Popovic said.

article originally published at http://www.pioneerlocal.com/schaumburg/news/228775,sc-attcantv-012507-s1.article.

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