Will the public get wired? 


Advocates of public access cable can make their case again Tuesday, Sept. 15, before the Orange County Commission after a dozen people urged the board not to scratch provisions for public access from the ordinance governing cable franchises.

Staff, legal counsel and a would-be cable TV company had hoped to resolve the matter with a Sept. 1 public hearing that was continued to the latter date.

"Quite frankly, the extension of time was due to Time Warner cable; I wish it was due to us," says Lance Turner, founder of the Citizens for Public Access Campaign.

The Sept. 1 hearing promised a rubber-stamp session in which the commission would approve a new ordinance drafted by county staff in consultation with the county's five cable companies, plus Bell South, which would like to be a cable company. The local phone company's representative complained that his competitors were dragging out the process to keep his company out.

Citizens at the meeting, however, were more interested in competition from local voices than from another media giant. The current ordinance provides for public access that has never been used because, according to county officials and cable television brass, there was "no interest." But citizen speakers said the county and cable companies blunted citizen interest by refusing to work with those who wanted to start a cable access program. "When I went to the county to ask about establishing public access, they said talk to the cable company," says Turner. "When I went to the company, they told me to approach the county."

Public access was born decades ago of the idea that cable companies, in exchange for use of public rights of way for their cables, should give something back to the communities they serve. Franchise fees, negotiated with the county or municipality, are used in part to fund channels dedicated to local government, educational, or pure home- grown broadcasts. Public access broadcasts everything from home cannery techniques and gardening shows to religious broadcasting.

Because only obscenity is forbidden, some shows have generated controversy. Most local officials try to avoid establishing public access, instead favoring educational and government channels, which are more closely controlled. "No one is a stronger defender of the First Amendment than I, but I know that communities across the nation have suffered through nightmares with public access," County Chairman Linda Chapin offered during the first hearing. "So I would ask the board to consider this carefully."

Cable executives, meanwhile, are loath to give up channel space for public access, preferring to reserve channels for revenue-generating infomercial peddlers or premium movie channels.

During two years of negotiations with the county, cable executives also hoped to redefine "gross revenues" -- the base number on which the county collects it franchise fees. Time Warner wanted to exempt the money it expects to make by providing such things as high-speed Internet access. Nothing doing, said the county.

"We're on the same page with them on that," says Keith Longmore, who sparked the citizen movement for public access when he discovered the omission of the public access provision in the proposed ordinance. The irony, for public access advocates, is the county negotiated for so long with the cable companies without telling anyone.

"The only notice to the public was on Aug. 20," says Turner. "The government didn't tell us about it. If we had public access, the communication would have been better."


More by Ericson, Edward Jr.

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