By Matt Murphy STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, MAY 30, 2017
Maybe you missed the big city council vote because you couldn’t find the meeting on your television guide.
Or, perhaps, you wish you could have seen that game-winning touchdown pass against your town’s archrival on Thanksgiving Day in high definition.
Dozens of state lawmakers want to address both those issues by requiring cable companies to set aside high definition channels for cable access programming and include the local television offerings in the digital programming guides.
“These are two very simple things that would make a huge difference with community television,” said Rep. Ruth Balser, the House sponsor of legislation to mandate both changes to the way public, educational and government (PEG) access television reaches viewers.
Balser said that when she started in politics, constituents used to bump into her in the grocery story in Newton and tell her about how they “stumbled” upon her cable access show. That doesn’t happen much anymore. “They don’t flip anymore, and they mostly stay in the HD zones,” she said.
But cable providers contend that not only would the changes be difficult to enact, but they would violate federal and constitutional law. The major cable providers – Comcast, Verizon and RCN – all oppose the legislation, and suggested at a hearing Tuesday that high-definition channels for PEG programming remain subject to the local negotiating process of franchise agreements.
The Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy received testimony Tuesday from more than a handful of lawmakers in support of the bill, including Sens. Joan Lovely and Michael Brady, who serve on the committee.
“I look better in high definition,” Sen. Michael Barrett, the co-chair of the committee, joked.
The bills (H 2682/S 1857) filed by Balser and Sen. John Keenan have more than 80 co-sponsors, according to Balser.
Rep. Jonathan Hecht, a Watertown Democrat, urged his colleagues to take action to stop community access programming from being treated as the “unloved stepchild of cable TV.”
Bill Nay, the general manager of Mashpee TV and the president of the MassAccess coalition, said 60 percent of legislators produce shows at the local level, and Massachusetts accounts for 16 percent of all community media stations in the county despite residents making up just 2 percent of national cable subscribers.
“We think this speaks to the passion Massachusetts residents have for local media and all the services PEG access provides throughout the towns,” Nay said.
Rep. Michelle DuBois, a Brockton Democrat, said part of the reason she was re-elected when she served in municipal government was because “people would watch city council meetings and decided they like me.”
“I have a show on cable access called ‘Good Government with Michelle DuBois’ and a lot of people tell me they don’t know when they can watch my show,” she told the committee.
Nay said municipalities have been requesting access to the HD channel tier and inclusion in the guide since the early 2000s, but claimed most cable providers refuse. “This refusal to offer PEG channels access to HD and the channel guide is nothing short of discrimination,” Nay said.
Cable companies, however, said high definition channel slots should remain subject to local negotiation, while inclusion in the programming guides presents technological challenges that could make it cost-prohibitive, if not impossible, and cause disruptions for customers.
Robert Scott, a D.C.-based attorney for the New England Cable and Telecommunications Association, testified that the Balser-Keenan bill would run afoul of the federal Cable Act and the constitutional protection against government interference in private contracts.
He also said it could violate the First Amendment protection against laws preferring government speech to private speech.
Rep. Josh Cutler, a Duxbury Democrat, challenged Scott’s interpretation of the First Amendment, arguing that PEG channels provide more than just government content, but also sports and lifestyle entertainment. “My experience with public access is it’s the wild west. You can see all types of shows,” he said
Rep. Randy Hunt, a Sandwich Republican who ran a public access non-profit before getting into politics, also said the variety of offerings on public access television make it distinct from a cable channel such as ESPN, which is dedicated to sports.
“My amazement with this whole thing is I don’t know why we even have to entertain such a bill to force this to be done when clearly it should just be done,” Hunt said.
Thomas Steele, vice president and regulatory counsel for RCN, said his company has approached all 18 communities served in Massachusetts, including Boston, and offered HD channels. He said seven communities have taken them up on the offer, and six more deals are pending, but five communities have expressed no interest.
“I’m not sure all the communities are ready or willing to have this mandated,” Steele said.
Adding PEG channels to the programming guide, Steele said, is even more problematic. He said when RCN attempted to do it, the company’s programmers ran into issues that would cause changes to the guide to show up for subscribers outside of the local PEG territories. It could also require replacing the cable boxes in the homes of every subscriber.
“That’s an administrative nightmare for us,” Steele said.
Verizon Vice President Joe Zukowski said it should be up to a community to decide whether to seek access to high-definition channels for PEG programming as part of negotiations over local franchise agreements. Municipalities typically negotiate local franchise agreements every 10 years.
“If this makes the list, that’s their choice,” Zukowski said.