September 17, 2014

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Critics: Cable bill cuts local shows

Bill before state House eliminates fee funding public-access channels

COLUMBUS — A bill that would rewrite the rules governing cable television franchises in Ohio and help telecommunications giant AT&T Inc. enter the video market threatens to wipe out local public access channels, critics say.
The bill would allow AT&T to obtain a single franchise agreement from the state, rather than having to negotiate city by city and face different requirements in each community, as cable companies have done for decades.
If approved, the bill would also give Time Warner and other cable companies the right to get a single, statewide agreement.
With AT&T in the television market and cable companies freed from a costly patchwork of local franchise laws, consumers would have more choices for home video service and possibly lower prices because of competition, according to the bill’s supporters.
But public access channels would lose funding they receive through local franchise fees, and the channels — if they manage to continue operating — would be moved to higher-tier service packages, critics say.
John Madding, manager of WCTV in Wadsworth, a Northeast Ohio educational channel, carries about 1,800 shows a year, including city council meetings and local sporting events.
“It knits the community together a little more than other communities,” Madding said.
The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Jeff Jacobson, a Republican from Vandalia, has already passed the Senate and is now before a House public utilities committee.
It is one of the most heavily lobbied bills in the Republican-controlled state Legislature, with San Antonio-based AT&T employing more than two dozen lobbyists on its Ohio payroll. The cable industry has 17.
Thirteen other states, including California, Indiana and Michigan, have approved similar statewide franchising laws.
Diane Katz, a researcher at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan, said public access and government programming channels are a relic of the 1960s and 1970s when communities were attempting to provide the public with an opportunity to express opinions and be more involved in local schools and government.
Katz said the explosion of new technologies and the Internet have provided cheaper and more efficient alternatives, and customers should not be burdened with local franchise fees.