Protesters say deal will hurt public TV

Public-access backers rally against cable plan between Comcast, city

October 14, 2004|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

Advocates of public-access television -- some with video cameras in hand -- swarmed a City Hall hearing last night to voice opposition to a proposed 12-year franchise deal with cable provider Comcast, a contract that some fear could freeze out citizen programs.

Mayor Martin O'Malley's administration supports the deal, in which Comcast would pay the city $4.3 million a year. Comcast would also collect a 50-cents-a- month subscriber fee -- or about $700,000 a year total -- to fund public channels for government, education and public-access programs.

"We believe this is an agreement designed to bring the best cable service to the city," said Deputy Mayor Jean Hitchcock, who represented the mayor's office at the City Council hearing.

But advocates for public access disagreed. At a rally outside City Hall before the hearing, they chanted, "No sweetheart deals for Comcast, no sweetheart deals for the City Council folk," a reference to gifts the cable company has made to council members. Federal investigators subpoenaed Comcast in August for documents detailing the presents.

"We are about to see Baltimore attempt to ram down our throats a public deal that does not include the public," said Marvin L. "Doc" Cheatham, president of the Maryland Voting Rights Restoration Coalition, who participated in the rally organized by the Maryland chapter of ACORN -- Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now.

Cheatham and other advocates say the contract with Comcast does not detail the amount of money that would go to public-access television. They worry that most of the money would go to the mayor's Office of Cable and Communications, a high-tech television studio with a full-time staff and $800,000 budget that produces public programs, most of them about government activities.

The head of the cable office, Marilyn Harris-Davis, has said as much. "Most of it would probably go to [the government access channel]," she told The Sun recently.

City Solicitor Ralph S. Tyler said last night that the funding wording could be added during council work sessions next week. He said that if the bill fails, a federal regulatory board could force the city to adopt a contract that provides even less funding for cable access channels.

"That is something that is open to discussion," Tyler said, referring to funding language. "It's a matter of indifference to Comcast how the money is divided up between the cable access channels."

Baltimore has three cable access channels -- one each for topics related to government, education and public access. Tyler said a memorandum could be produced that would detail the amounts each of the channels would receive, including money for capital projects and training.

But besides funding language, advocates say the city is not getting a good deal. Other municipalities have negotiated better deals with Comcast, said Amanda Bowers, a spokeswoman for Baltimore Grassroots Media, whose members include independent video producers.

Comcast sets aside $2 million for the exclusive use of Montgomery County's two public access cable television channels, she said. It provides Washington's cable access channels with 1 percent of its gross revenue for capital needs and another 1 percent for public access programming.

"The people have to be guaranteed in this contract that they will get money for their channel, and that is essential," Bowers said.

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