City board urged to reject Comcast deal

Public access advocates want guaranteed funding in pact with cable provider

October 21, 2004|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

Advocates for public access television continued their campaign yesterday to derail the city's pending 12-year franchise deal with cable provider Comcast.

At a public hearing before the city's Board of Estimates yesterday, public access TV proponents said the city should demand guaranteed funding for citizen programming before completing the deal.

"We call for the Board of Estimates to amend or reject this contract," said Amanda Bowers, a spokeswoman for Baltimore Grassroots Media. "We're really trying to give a voice to citizens."

Mayor Martin O'Malley said the deal with Comcast was good for the city and that rejecting the deal would force the cable company to hammer out an arrangement through mediation with federal regulators, a course that could result in the city getting a far less desirable franchise agreement.

"We think we've gotten the best deal we can get," O'Malley said.

The board will consider the contract again at its meeting next week. The City Council is expected to vote on it next month. The council can only vote the deal up or down; only the board has the power to amend the contract before a ratification vote.

The council is scheduled to hold a work session on the franchise agreement today at 3:30 p.m. in City Hall. The council held a public hearing last week that attracted dozens of public access supporters who believe Comcast is shortchanging the city.

The 12-year franchise proposal, which would begin Jan. 1, requires Comcast to pay the city 5 percent of the gross revenues generated from its nearly 120,000 city subscribers. The fee would generate approximately $4.3 million annually for Baltimore's general fund.

In addition, Comcast would charge each subscriber a $6 annual fee that would generate more than $700,000 a year for the capital costs of public access programming on cable's Channel 5 and shows produced by city government on cable's Channel 21 and city schools on cable's Channel 7.

Comcast would also provide $570,000 over the next 12 years -- $210,000 in the first three years and $40,000 a year for the remaining nine years -- to provide public access training.

"We believe this bill is fair," said Ken Crooks, Comcast vice president of operations.

The city has promised to designate a nonprofit organization to administer public access programming, which currently is managed by the mayor's Office of Cable and Communications. Public access advocates believe the operation should be fully independent of City Hall and that Comcast should designate part of the franchise fee specifically to public access.

O'Malley said the 5 percent franchise fee goes to the general fund to help the city pay for other priorities, such as fighting crime. City officials have said the money in the franchise and the $570,000 grant, which is a separate agreement, provide public access with more guaranteed funding than in the past.

The mayor also commended Comcast for agreeing to abide by the city's policy of including minorities and women in business operations, even though he expressed dismay that the cable provider was not currently meeting all of its stated participation goals.

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