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Another Person Fighting To Save Public Access Channels On Charter Cable

July 30, 2008

A reader, John Foust,  who left a comment on my blog, also has a wonderful post of his own about Charter Communications, and the need to prevent Charter from moving public access channels to the digital tier of their programming.

In part Foust writes…..

Charter says they needed to perform this “digital orthodontia” to create more spaces of bandwidth in the higher channel ranges so they can offer more HD channels (at an extra cost) in order to better compete with satellite. They’re not just dropping the old analog channel spaces, though. In Madison, for example, the government channel has been on channel 12 for almost 35 years. It will be replaced with ONTV4U, an informercial channel.  (My emphasis)

Charter’s explanation is based on the Act 42 loophole that these channels remain available on “basic cable” and “expanded basic” levels of service – never mind that new equipment is required for most analog customers. Although the channels are not encrypted or otherwise blocked, and are available to all customers, you’ll generally need a converter box or a newer TV to watch your local PEG channels. If you watch TV via the tuner in your VCR, you’ll need a converter box. Some new mid-priced televisions (generally >$400) and a few new DVD recorders (>$200) include QAM tuners that can view the new digital channels without a converter box. If you already have digital service and are watching HBO in the living room, but have other analog TVs in the house without converter boxes, you’ll need to rent converter boxes for those other TVs now, too, if you want to watch the Senate and Book TV coverage on C-SPAN 2, or the live events and historical programming on C-SPAN 3, the statewide programming on WisconsinEye or the local coverage from your community’s PEG channels.

The second half of the loophole is that Act 42 allows them to move PEG channels to any tier subscribed to by more than 50% of customers. Although it may be true that statewide Charter has about 55% of customers on digital, it is not true community-by-community, and the law isn’t clear in that phrase. There are many rural communities where the digital customers are a distinct minority, so most customers will lose these channels. The law was drafted by AT&T’s lobbyists, so it has weak spots.

Our state PEG channels serve an important role in informing the public about the affairs of local government, school boards, civic groups and free expression. The move to digital means these channels will lose viewers, as the frugal households on basic and expanded basic cable will no longer be able to watch without additional expense. We’ll lose the universal coverage for local emergency management banners. Here in Jefferson, where about 75% of the homes have Charter, our local access channel became very valuable during the recent flooding. Our city ran daily updates, on the hour, to keep the public informed of road closings and other dangers.

The harm is not only to households. Charter delivers cable to 1,300 school buildings in Wisconsin. Many of these school districts operate their own local educational channels to show students the morning announcements, plays, sports and message slideshows. All those televisions on carts in classrooms – they’re most likely analog, not digital. On the first day of school, teachers and principals will be surprised that they can no longer view the channels that they themselves produce. These days, many schools deliver the morning announcements on their PEG channel. Let’s hope the answer is not renting a Charter converter box for every classroom, at $5 a month.

Who can change this? When Gov. Doyle signed Act 42, he urged legislators to consider remedial legislation to patch the flaws. Call your Assembly and Senate reps. Tell your council members. Alert your schools. Write to jim.rabbitt@datcp.state.wi.us at the Dept. of Consumer Protection.WISC-TV story, Charter said “they always make adjustments based on customer feedback, and if this switch goes forward and people don’t like it, it could potentially be changed back.”

And call Charter. The move doesn’t have to happen. In a recent

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One Comment leave one →
  1. July 31, 2008 11:27 AM

    Thank you for the re-publication! You can find more information at the web site of the Wisconsin Association of PEG Access Channels. See my link.

    This proposed change is coming quickly and will have far-reaching effects. For example, in Madison, viewership of the city channel 12 jumps at election time when they broadcast candidate forums. I’m afraid many citizens will be left behind if they only tune to their PEG channels at certain times of the year.

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