I was more than a little surprised to discover that Time Warner/Oceanic Cable has used my comments about public access in what appears to be a broad, multi-pronged attack by the corporate giant on Olelo Community Media, Oahu’s provider of public, education, and government cable programming.
TW/Oceanic made numerous references and lifted long passages out of my February 27, 2012 post (“Have community access media organizations adapted to the digital age?“). These are included in a March 29, 2012 document filed by TW/Oceanic in a proceeding reviewing Olelo’s application to continue to provide public access services.
TW/Oceanic took the unusual step of intervening in the proceeding at the same time that the company is already challenging Olelo’s funding request for new equipment and facilities, a case that is already in arbitration.
And Kauai Rep. James Tokioka, who works for Oceanic, has been leading criticism of Olelo within the legislature, despite what seems to be a pretty clear conflict of interest (see Civil Beat, “Hawaii Lawmaker Voted on Bills Backed By His Employer — Oceanic Cable“).
TW/Oceanic’s is pursuing contradictory arguments that put Olelo in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” position. On the one hand, TW/Oceanic cites my comments in criticizing Olelo for being slow to adapt to the new world of digital communications and the openings to new and increasingly democratic forms of technology. On the other hand, TW/Oceanic denies any responsibility for extending the reach of community media into the new digital space, even when aimed at integrating cable programming, streaming, and social media use.
Here’s how Olelo CEO Roy Amemiya put it in a recent interview:
Q: What is the status of your equipment at ‘Olelo? Is it all fairly new and modern?
A: Oh, not at all. The majority of our equipment has been fully depreciated, and we’re currently negotiating with Oceanic Time Warner to help us through this digital transition that we started a year ago, because much of our technology was analog. And manufacturers don’t support that kind of equipment anymore.
Q: So are you digital now?
A: We could be. We’re still analog on three of our four channels.
Q: Is upgrading the equipment going to require a big capital investment?
A: Yes. About $6 million over three years.
Q: If you couldn’t get that all from Oceanic, would this be an opportunity for corporate donors?
A: It could be, but we can’t say too much because we are in arbitration with Oceanic.
Q: About what?
A: About the amount of capital funding that they will be providing us.
Q: That’s something they have to pony up, like part of their condition of operating?
A: Yes, absolutely. The way it works is, they use public rights of way …
Q: You mean like on the utility poles?
A: Yeah. I’m talking about the sidewalks and everything underground. They don’t pay rent in terms of dollars, but they pay rent in terms of public benefits, and one of those is to provide the funding for community television.
Q: Will Hawaiian Telcom have to pony up something, too?
Q: Why should cable TV customers have to be paying for ‘Olelo?
A: Oh, I think that it’s very clear that they believe there’s a big public benefit.
Q: “They,” meaning who?
A: The people that we’re serving. That comes out loud and clear. They believe in the First Amendment right that’s in our Constitution. Then if you look at what happened in the Arab spring and what’s going on in Syria, you can see what happens when you censor your citizenry. It’s not a good thing.
The TW/Oceanic attacks on public access media appear to be part of a broad, nationwide attempt by the major cable providers to weaken the public benefit provisions of state and local franchise agreements. A study last year by the Alliance for Community Democracy surveyed access providers across the country. Among its key findings:
• PEG Access Centers in at least 100 communities across the United States have been closed since 2005. A disproportionate number (93) exclusively served the public.
• Hundreds more PEG Access Centers in six states affected by state franchising laws may be forced to close or experience serious threats to financial and in-kind support over the next three years.
• Almost half of the 165 survey respondents providing financial information for 2005 and 2010 reported an average funding drop of 40% during that time period.
Corporations like TW/Oceanic are actively lobbing state and local government, and at the same time spending heavily on legal challenges to funding requirements tied to their cable franchises. It’s important to recall why federal law included public access programming requirements.
From the original Cable Act of 1984:
One of the greatest challenges over the years in establishing communications policy has been assuring access to the electronic media by people other than the licensees or owners of those media. The development of cable television, with its abundance of channels, can provide the public and program providers the meaningful access that, up until now, has been difficult to obtain. A requirement of reasonable third-party access to cable systems will mean a wide diversity of information sources for the public — the fundamental goal of the First Amendment — without the need to regulate the content of programming provided over cable.
Almost all recent franchise agreements provide for access by local governments, schools, and non-profit and community groups over so-called “PEG” (public, educational, and governmental) channels. Public access channels are often the video equivalent of the speaker’s soap box or the electronic parallel to the printed leaflet. They provide groups and individuals who generally have not had access to the electronic media with the opportunity to become sources of information in the electronic marketplace of ideas. PEG channels also contribute to an informed citizenry by bringing local schools into the home, and by showing the public local government at work.