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<nettime> FW: [reclaim the media ] Media Politics: Chump Change for King
Mike Weisman on Tue, 16 Dec 2003 23:34:19 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> FW: [reclaim the media ] Media Politics: Chump Change for King County

Media Politics: Chump Change for King County
by Jonathan Lawson

King County cable subscribers are probably about to suffer a major loss in
the cable service they’re paying for, as government officials quietly sell
out valuable technology access for chump change. In fact, it may have
happened by the time you’re reading this, if the King County Council rushes
forward as expected with a proposal to extend Comcast’s cable monopoly,
under terms extremely favorable to the company. If the county government
chooses the quick payoff over longer-term solutions which give the
government (and cable subscribers) more power, it could set a bad precedent
for other communities in the region also trying to get the most for their
cable subscribers’ money.

Under the proposed extension, which Councilmembers rushed into play two
weeks ago, with a vote scheduled on Dec. 15,  the county would extend
Comcast’s ten year franchise agreement for five additional years--or until
2010. The cash-strapped county government would get a one-time payoff of
$1.2 million. But it’s the additional details which have citizen observers
and public access advocates aligned against the deal.
In return for the $1.2 million extension payment, King County would give up
use of five channels reserved for public access, educational and
governmental use. The county has (shamefully) never made use of these
channels intended for local, noncommercial programming. Comcast would be
able to fill them with infomercials, home shopping channels or other
moneymaking fare. Under the deal, the county would also relinquish its
claim on future use of a wide swath of digital bandwidth—the equivalent of
several more broadcast channels, or which could be used for public
broadband Internet use.

The extra noncommercial channels which the county is poised to give up may
not be missed by the county’s cable subscribers, since the county
government has never providing programming for those channels, instead
leaving them dark. The county government has also largely been asleep at
the wheel in its enforcement of Comcast’s (formerly AT&T Broadband,
formerly TCI Cable) contractual obligations to the county under the
existing agreement, which are supposed to include the provision of a mobile
van for public access TV production, and connections to the county's fiber
optic Internet. Comcast has never lived up to these commitments, but King
County’s proposal to extend the company’s franchise overlooks entirely the
company’s abysmal record of noncompliance, effectively rewarding them for
past contract violations.
It’s true that these are lean times for local governments, making hefty
payouts from corporations quite attractive. This week, Tacoma’s City
Council is voting on a plan to rename the Tacoma Dome the “Comcast Dome.”
Pricetag: $7 million.

The $1.2 million payoff Comcast has offered King County sounds like a lot
of money. It’s not, considering the technology resources they’d be getting
back in return. According to documents filed by Comcast in its recent
unsuccessful lawsuit against the city of San Jose, the company estimated
that a single cable channel had a value of $260,000 per year. The $1.2
million Comcast is offering King County for five channels works out to
about $48,000 per channel per year. That’s compared to the roughly $130,000
Comcast says the channels ought to be worth (adjusted for the relative size
of the two markets). In short, King County is being offered a sucker deal,
40 cents on the dollar. Chump change, on top of a trail of broken promises
and short-changing local noncommercial programming.

Comcast is by far the country’s largest cable provider; at any given time
the company is negotiating hundreds of local cable contracts. The company
is happiest when municipalities follow Comcast’s lead in negotiations—not
being pushy, not making pesky demands for public access channels, open
access guarantees for consumer choice, and other such frills. The company
is less pleased when local governments actually choose to represent the
interests of cable consumers, figuring out what local communities’ needs
are for cable programming and Internet services and aggressively
negotiating on their behalf.
This latter course of action requires a local government to conduct a
public ascertainment—an investigative process to determine basic service
requirements (including educational and public access channels, municipal
Internet access, etc.). With the results of such an ascertainment in hand,
a local government can legally force a cable provider like Comcast to
provide better service. This is how San Jose won, and successfully
defended, a strong contract with Comcast. Without an ascertainment, as the
King County case shows, the government has very little or no bargaining
power, and is likely to be forced into a bad deal.

Last winter, the King County Council considered a proposal by Executive Ron
Sims to extend Comcast’s franchise by three years. That proposal was
already a  bad deal—failing to address Comcast’s poor compliance record—and
was eventually shelved. A year later, the County has failed to conduct even
a basic public ascertainment, and as a result, appears to be stuck with a
substantially worse deal than the one they rejected last year. The winner
is Comcast. The losers, as usual, are local citizens.

The City of Seattle’s own current contract with Comcast expires in 2006;
renewal talks will likely begin next year. The months ahead will determine
whether the city can learn the lessons of San Jose by preparing for
franchise negotiations with a public technology assessment, or whether it
will repeat the mistakes King County probably made this week, willfully
bowing before Comcast’s corporate steamroller.

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