At a recent committee meeting, several City Council members asked questions of the City Law Department in an apparent effort to understand new amendments proposed for a 12-year contract between Comcast and the City before approving them. As this was a voting session, not a hearing, there was no opportunity for the public to comment on the amendments.
It was clear from the Council members’ questions, however, that they wanted assurances that there would be some support in Bill 04-1504 for Public Access TV, in sharp contrast with Mayor Martin O’Malley’s position. In an interview in The Sun, O’Malley is quoted as saying that Public Access TV is not a critical need being demanded by city neighborhoods, and that “Public Access has been totally eclipsed by the Internet.” Critics pointed out that this statement was peculiar, coming as it did from a Mayor who just recently announced, with great fanfare, that offering more creative outlets for expression could reduce destructive teenage behavior.
While the Mayor can pretend that nobody cares about this issue, the City Council members saw the crowd at a public rally in October and the packed house at the subsequent public hearing. They sat through the work session about the contract, and received numerous calls, letters and e-mails expressing support for Public Access TV. While these Council members may want to respond to the citizens’ desire for Public Access, however, they will ultimately be to blame if Public Access TV fails. The Mayor will be able to say to them, “You knew my position, you saw the amendments, and you approved them, so it’s on you.”
What do the proposed amendments mean for the future of Public Access TV?
They appear to provide for a corporation to run Public Access TV, and to make sure that one-third of the 50-cent cable subscriber fee goes to fund Public Access TV. But here is how these amendments begin:
“Upon the enactment of this Ordinance, the City agrees to select and convene a Board of Incorporators to work with the City to create a public access entity to be responsible for the management of public access cable television programming.”
Under this model, a successful Public Access corporation start-up is estimated to take 18 months, according to DC public access TV. However, there is no timeline in this amendment for creation of the Public Access corporation, and no provision for what will happen in the meantime. There is no guarantee that a public access corporation will ever be created. There is not even a commitment that the Mayor-appointed Board of Incorporators will ever be convened; there is only language saying that the City “agrees” to convene it. That is not the same as saying, “The City shall select and convene a Board of Incorporators within so many months.” The Mayor’s attorneys have been very careful to leave out that kind of language.
The amendment goes on to say that Public Access TV will only start receiving one-third of the 50-cent subscriber fee once the Public Access entity is up and running. So it isn’t hard to see how subscribers’ money will keep flowing into the Mayor’s Government Access TV operation for quite some time, if not indefinitely. (The Mayor hasn’t said that we can do without GovernmentAccess TV--only that we can do without Public Access TV.) Even if the public’s one-third portion of the subscriber fee does materialize, it is legally restricted in its use to such things as equipment and facilities, and cannot be used to pay staff to run a Public Access TV operation. There is still no money in Bill 04-1504 for day-to-day operations.
All in all, the amendments paint a very bleak picture for the future of Public Access TV in Baltimore. Since the Mayor can appoint, or not appoint, a Board of Incorporators on whatever timeline he chooses, and since none of the money can legally flow to Public Access TV until that Board of Incorporators has set up a Public Access TV corporation, citizens could effectively see the end of Public Access TV on the day Bill 04-1504 becomes law.
It is extremely important, therefore, that City Council members understand exactlywhat they are voting for, what these amendments actually mean, and what level of commitment to Public Access TV there really is in this contract, before they rubber-stamp it at the City Council meeting on Monday, December 6. If Public Access TV is dead on arrival, they will be the ones who could have prevented it, but didn’t.
Note: There are currently three cable channels overseen by the Mayor’s Office of Cable Communications; Channel 21, operated by the city government, is funded by a $1.1 million allocation in the city budget; Channel 6, designated for education, has no city funding, nor does Public Access Channel 5. The latter has been broadcasting independently-produced programs and videos provided by volunteers, but there is currently no assurance it will be able to continue beyond January 1, 2005.
This story was published on November 30, 2004.