City Council hears new Comcast proposal

Cable TV fee increase to fund public shows has some members bristling

August 10, 2004|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

Comcast Cable subscribers in the city would pay $6 more annually under a new 12-year franchise agreement negotiated by Mayor Martin O'Malley's administration and introduced to the City Council last night.

Several council members chafed at the added expense of 50 cents per month, which would be used to pay for shows produced by the public, educational institutions and governmental agencies. They said that Comcast should pay for the production costs of such programming.

"Comcast is contributing nothing," Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young said.

The terms of the proposed franchise deal, which succeeds a 20-year agreement that recently expired, requires Comcast to pay an annual franchise fee equal to 5 percent of its gross revenues generated by city subscribers. Federal law limits the city charge at 5 percent. For the most recent 12-month period calculated by the city, the fee generated $4.3 million for Baltimore's general fund, city officials said.

Comcast officials could not be reached for comment on the proposed deal.

The franchise agreement hashed out in 1984 required an allocation of $1.1 million for public access television on Channel 5, educational shows on Channel 7, and governmental programs on Channel 21. That money ran out years ago, city officials said.

The proposed fees to finance those channels - and several new ones - would generate approximately $700,000 each year. The money would be used to pay for studio and production facilities. In addition, Comcast would contribute $250,000 for production training over the next four years and $40,000 annually in the remaining eight years of the agreement.

The proposal for the 12-year franchise deal, which will begin public hearings next month, is expected to be approved by December and would begin Jan. 1. Council members asked if they could amend the contract if they wanted to do so, but city lawyers said that the city charter allows only the Board of Estimates to make changes.

Ernest Crofoot, a chief solicitor for the city's Law Department, said the city's franchise agreement with Comcast is not exclusive and that other cable operators could negotiate a franchise to enter the market to build a system. Flight Systems Cablevision owns the city's only other cable franchise, providing service in the area bordering the Inner Harbor. Flight Systems pays an annual franchise fee of 5 percent of its gross revenues and contributes another 2 percent annually to public access, educational and government channels, Crofoot said.

Councilwoman Lois A. Garey complained that Comcast does not offer city subscribers the same services available in surrounding counties, but Crofoot said the franchise deal will require the company to provide equal service within two years.

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