Cable TV slights channels for public

Published September 6, 2007

In signing a law this year that deregulates cable television in Florida, Gov. Charlie Crist wrote that he "will work to ensure that this bill does not dilute the availability of public access channels." He'll have to work quickly.

The dilution has begun, at least in the Tampa Bay area, and the decision by Bright House Networks to move local government and access channels into a higher digital tier of service is likely to be only the beginning. Just read the new law. It goes so far as to establish "utilization criteria" for each local government channel, requiring 10 hours of daily programming "of which at least 5 hours must be nonrepeat."

Not many local channels meet that standard, and here's the kicker: "If the applicable access channel does not meet this utilitization criterion," the law states, "the cable or video service provider may reprogram the channel at its discretion."

In other words, cities and counties wanting to provide televised coverage of their government meetings are now at the mercy of businesses whose agenda is primarily entertainment.

In the Tampa Bay region, Bright House is moving the channels into a tier that may cost some basic service customers extra money. And Kevin Hyman, president of Bright House's Tampa Bay division, frames the question this way: "Aren't we ultimately in the best position of taking the risk of deciding what's in the best interests of our customers?"

Hyman makes a fair point, but companies that string cables across public property have historically been asked to do more than just pay a franchise fee. The local access channels were never intended to compete with ESPN or HBO or the major networks, but they do allow citizens to take the measure of their own government at work. They play an important role in democracy.

Whether Florida's cable deregulation law will spur competition that drives down prices for consumers is debatable. But it clearly threatens the public service compact that has existed between cable companies and local governments for decades. If that picture wasn't clear in May, when Crist signed the law, it will be crystal clear in December, when local access channels go digital.