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Deregulation Threatens Local Cable Programming

By Ann Williams
Staff Writer

July 31 -- Political talk show host Bob Jimenez doesn’t know what the future holds for his show Week In Review, which has aired on local cable systems in California for nearly two decades.

But he does know the recent buyout of Adelphia by Time Warner, along with legislation that would deregulate cable franchises, will probably change the face of local public affairs programming, and he fears it won’t be for the better.

“The airways belong to the American people, they do not belong to the corporations,” said Jimenez, whose show is taped at cable studios in Santa Monica.

“The public should be in on the decision making,” he said. “The people should have a say in what they are given.”

Jimenez is worried his program, which offers a “sober and balanced discussion of the issues” to a potential audience of ten million viewers statewide, might be replaced by “30-second sound bites,” or worse, infomercials for “tummy tucks” and “how to make a million dollars.”

“We’re not sure if we’re going to survive or not,” said Jimenez, who teaches at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. Time-Warner, he said, “could do anything it wants with that time.”

There was no taping of Week in Review this week, and the media giant is deciding whether or not to keep airing local programs such as Week In Review, which features in-depth political coverage and high-powered guests who have included mayors, governors and vice presidents.

Launched by Los Angeles Council member Bill Rosendahl when he was a cable executive, the show is part of an ambitious slate of programming that went beyond the city council meetings or high-school sports aired by most cable operators to fulfill the public affairs programming required by their contracts with local cities.

Now, under a number of complex bills supported by the telecom industry that are making their way through state capitols -- including Sacramento -- as well as through Congress, local governments would lose control of cable franchises.

AT&T and Verizon have spent millions on advertisements in California alone to convince the public that increased competition in the cable industry will lead to lower prices and better service.

And they’ve spent plenty buying legislative support, according to Judy Dugan of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, a Santa Monica organization that’s at the forefront of the legislative battle.

Last spring, AT&T sponsored a golf tournament in Monterey that raised $1.7 million for California Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez’ war chest to be divvied up among Democratic legislators, Dugan said.

Speaker’s Bill AB 2987 – sponsored by Núñez and supported by AT&T and Verizon – passed 77 to 0 in the State Assembly a month ago and looks to be a shoo-in when the Senate reconvenes in August. The bill would shift control of cable franchises from local into State hands.

Núñez denied being influenced by corporate contributions in a letter to the Monterey County Weekly this month.

But Dugan counters that AB 2987 is one of a number of state bills nationwide that are similarly worded, indicating they are the work of the same corporate entity.

“They’re not written by legislators,” she said.

In another attack on local control, a federal bill -- H.R. 5252 -- aims to trump the state bills, placing control over cable franchises in federal hands, although the bill is not likely to pass this year.

Local governments are not taking all of this lying down.

In May, the Santa Monica City Council approved a resolution opposing the speaker’s bill.

Under the terms of the proposed law, if a competitor, say AT&T or Verizon, gets a state franchise to compete in Santa Monica, Time-Warner could legally walk out on its contract with the City and enter into a contract with the State.

The conditions the corporation originally agreed on to win the City contract would be void, and there’d be nothing the City could do about it.

“That’s probably the thing we will never accept about the bill,” Deputy Executive Director Dwight Stenbakken of the League of California Cities told The Lookout.

“The State can just abrogate any contract at the local level, just because there is a State interest,” said Stenbakken, who predicts the proposed law will end up in the courts.

Among a number of other objections, the City’s resolution faults AB 2987 for allowing “companies to determine, in their discretion, how they will satisfy PEG obligations.”

PEGs are public, educational and government channels, such as those that carry Week in Review and the award-winning local election coverage created by Santa Monica CityTV.

The proposed State bill “essentially guarantees a significant reduction in PEG,” the resolution states. “It allows companies to dictate to the public what and how little they will get instead of the public telling the companies what it needs and requires.”

Núñez’s staff was quick to respond. Under the proposed bill, existing PEGs will be grandfathered in, his staff said, and areas without PEGs will get three PEGs off the bat, effectively increasing their number throughout the state.

“Speaker Núñez feels the same way that PEG stations stay where they are and not decrease,” Núñez’s spokesman Richard Stapler told the Lookout. Stapler added that “specific provisions” in the bill safeguard local government programming.

But the City still isn’t convinced. CityTV managers fear they would lose channels guaranteed under the current contract but not covered by AB 2987’s grandfather clause.

“Plans for using the channels in the future are up in the air,” said Assistant City Manager Judy Franz. “If this bill in any way jeopardizes the ability to air the programs, that’s the key.”

Stenbakken says the League of California Cities shares the concern.

“The whole PEG channel area is the most ill-defined portion of the bill,” he said. “A lot of this stuff is up in the air. (The legislation) certainly raises questions about the current commitment to PEG channels.”

Meanwhile, back in the corporate suites, Time Warner officials are deciding what to ax and what to keep on the air, as they review the current lineup of local programs taped in a brick building in the heart of Santa Monica’s industrial corridor.

“We’re committed to local programming,” said Deane Leavenworth, the company’s vice president of Corporate Relations. “It’s not something we’re addressing casually.”

There’s “a whole group” at Time Warner dedicated to quality local programming, Leavenworth said. Some of the ideas the company is considering include headline inserts and video on demand, he said.

“The amount of attention that’s being paid (to local programming), the scale and scope, will be apparent over the ensuing months,” Leavenworth promised.

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