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May 28, 2009

Comcast Polling on Support for Public Access TV

The ongoing turf war battle between national telecom giant Comcast and Vermont's community access television stations is heating up again.

This week, Comcast has been polling Vermonters around the state in an effort to gauge if they watch community-access programming,

We've covered this issue in both "Fair Game" and Blurt for months. The issue first surfaced earlier this year when Comcast petitioned state regulators to absolve themselves from giving money to the Regional Education Technology Network (RETN) to provide educational programming on Channel 16 for parts of Chittenden County.

At issue is who should have a say over what PEG channels purchase and how they provide programming to the community.

That led to the two sides inking a deal to keep RETN funded while they hammered out their issues. It also led some local school boards to voice support for RETN. The Charlotte School Board has invited Comcast to answer questions about the ongoing RETN dispute, and Comcast plans to attend the board's upcoming meeting on Tuesday.

According to people polled who contacted Seven Days, the poll questions centered on the following topics:

  • How much they watched each channel in the last month?
  • How much they would be willing to pay to support the channels (the pollster asked the caller if they knew $4.71 of their cable bill went to support them)?
  • Did they know one of the channels had a 25 percent surplus?
  • Were they aware they could borrow equipment? If so, how often had they done so in
  • last 12 months? How likely is it they would do so in next 12 months?
  • How much would they be willing to pay extra on their cable bill so the channels could buy new equipment?

These questions are nothing new to the debate. Comcast has been objecting to funding certain equipment purchases made by PEG channels — largely items that allow the channels to create web-based programming or provide such programming to viewers. Comcast believes it should not be required to fund such items as they fall outside TV programming. PEG channels say they have community boards that oversee their operations and have OK'd these purchases based on the demands of people in the viewing area — not just cable subscribers.

"We do know that, despite netting $2.5 billion in profit in 2008 and significantly increasing its own capital spending over the past few years, Comcast is attempting to significantly reduce or eliminate funding for capital equipment in contract renewal negotiations around the state with access management organizations like RETN," noted Scott Campitelli, RETN's executive director and program manager.

Top officials at RETN and CCTV say they wish Comcast had approached them about the survey. RETN's executive director noted that hundreds of people have come out in support of public-access programming in recent months.

"RETN is always interested in hearing from the communities we serve. In fact, during the past few months hundreds of Vermonters signed petitions, passed resolutions, completed surveys, and wrote letters expressing support for the work we do," said Campitelli.

Campitelli was puzzled why Comcast would conduct a poll without first consulting the local organizations it contracts with to provide public-access TV.

Comcast spokeswoman Laura Brubaker said the survey was conducted as part of a statewide assessment of "the public access-related needs of the communities we serve in Vermont."

Brubaker said Comcast "routinely surveys our customers on a variety of topics, from products and services, to customer service, to public access programming, to ensure that we are meeting our customers' needs and providing them with the best customer experience possible."

Lauren-Glenn Davitian, executive director of CCTV and the Center for Media & Democracy, said Comcast should work more closely with local groups providing community access TV so the research provides meaningful results for everyone.

"While statistics and polls shed light on numbers of viewers and awareness of public, educational and government access, we typically measure success through the vitality of our centers and the diversity and involvement of community members, citizen activists and local leaders," said Davitian. "We know that our channels are valued because people in the community let us know."

As an example of community support, Davitian pointed to Rep. Linda Myers' (R-Essex) testimonial at the end of the "Channel 17 Update" agenda item. Click here to watch.

Interestingly , RETN learned last night that it had won the Alliance for Community Media's national award for Overall Excellence in Educational Access.

Meanwhile, Comcast is in an Internet deathmatch with AIG on The Consumerist to see who is the worst company in the U.S. Currently, AIG is in the lead.

"Comcast is in the final deathmatch for the second year in a row after losing to Countrywide in 2008," the site notes. "Will this be the year that the cable giant finally takes home the top honor? Or will WCIA newcomer and top-seeded company AIG continue its total domination?"

The winner gets its name engraved on the lucky golden poo trophy.

Can't wait for the results.

Bet Comcast is bummed at missing out on that trophy 2 years in a row. Maybe if they manage to eliminate the funding for community media, they'll win in 2010!

Comcast has been objecting to funding certain equipment purchases made by PEG channels — largely items that allow the channels to create web-based programming or provide such programming to viewers. Comcast believes it should not be required to fund such items as they fall outside TV programming.

Despite having a near monopoly on internet access in Vermont.

The taxpayers give these guys the *airwaves*. The least they can do is sponsor public programming.

The results are in! AIG beat out Comcast this year for The Worst Company In America award. Don't worry, Comcast, you can come back to win again next year once we've forgotten who got us into this financial mess (AIG who?) - I'm sure you'll give it your best!

But seriously, if Comcast had to pay for all the public access *they* get (telephone poles, public infrastructure, etc.) they'd be out of business tomorrow!

It is amazing how far a company will go to pursue their image of idiocy.

I don't even have to read this to know that my response is gonna be DIE COMCAST, DIE!!!!!!!

Though Channel 15 could be removed from the air and I, for one, wouldn't care a wit.

Gotta wonder what the channel line up would be if we could vote on ALL channels. Since we don't get to choose, we PAY for all the junk.

I could cut my list to about 10 channels and never miss the rest. How much am I paying for QVC, religion, Fox News, Lifetime, etc that I don't want?

I can go to the store and buy peanut butter and jam but I don't have to pay for toothpicks, oranges and dish soap.

Comcast's underhandedness continues to go without notice to the public. People that are aware of the situation may know the facts, and see through Comcast's questions, but I still talk to people that are unaware that they are not being billed for public access funding. Comcast gives a specific percentage of cable subscriber revenues for public access. But for some reason, they are allowed to put a line item on your bill making it look like YOU, the subscriber, are paying a direct fee for public access funding. The fact is, if public access were not around anymore, you would still pay the same amount, only Comcast would keep it all... which is what they want. The bottom line is, it's a fee for Comcast, not for Comcast's subcribers.

Yes, Matt is right. Comcast is required by law to pay a franchise fee in exchange for its use of the public's right of way (stringing their cable over publicly owned land, using publicly owned bandwidth, etc.). They have to pay the fee no matter who manages the funds.

Comcast gets permission to operate in Vermont when it's granted its "Certificate of Public Good," which all utilities need to acquire from the Vermont Public Service Board. The PSB dictate's that Comcast must set aside funding for PEG centers like RETN, VCAM and CCTV. That Comcast then turns around and adds a public access line-item on the cable bill is their shifty way of making it look like cable subscribers pay *extra* for the PEG services. They don't. Comcast has to pay the franchise fees no matter what size your cable bill is. And since THE ENTIRE public owns the publicly owned property that Comcast utilizes, the ENTIRE PUBLIC gets access to PEG facilities -- not just cable subscribers.

And RETN winning the highest award for excellence there is for a PEG center the same week that Comcast comes in second as the worst company in America is awesome.

Dell, May I suggest taking your beef with channel 15 and making a program about it... on channel 15. Contact me and I will help you make that happen.

Full disclosure: I'm the production manager at VCAM (channel 15).

Oh yes, Dell, my email is bill at vermontcam dot org. (the offer is sincere.)

The of all the above comments is the one t\that points out how Comcast through the posting of access fees on individual bills mislead both the public and the customer. We all in the access world need to nail Comcast for this through the PSD and if need be the PSB as an infraction of the law that sets the amount that must be set aside by the franchise in this case Comcast. In addition there is a new player coming into the field which giving 3% of gross profits not just cable base profits on cable fee. And 3% of gross profits,is a hell of a lot more than 5% of base cable fee.
John Bloch

Well said Bill and Matt. I'll only add this -- because it's the community's money it should be local representatives from the community that decide how that money gets spent, not an out-of-state corporation like Comcast.

I think we're incredibly lucky to have three quality local access channels - RETN, VCAM and CCTV. I disagree with Dell's assessment, losing Channel 15 would be a huge blow to the Vermont Symphony Orchestra, VSA, The Awareness Theater Company, and the hundreds of community members VCAM trains each year to create social media. Public access is about so much more than the TV shows you see on cable. Thanks VCAM for all you do!

(I'm one of those access people, too. I'm community relations associate at RETN.)

This push-poll is a key part of Comcast's plan to gather info against Public Access for their negotiations with the PSB for their renewal of the Certificate of Public Good. Comcast will do here in VT what they do elsewhere in the country: keep PEG fees, force all PEG stations out of business by withholding their funding, and claim they meet their obligations by having one statewide 'public' channel that they control. They'll go to the PSB and say, 'It'll be easier if you let us takeover, you won't have those pesky AMOs petitioning you all the time about how evil we are and clogging up your dockets.'

The PSB might even go for that argument, too.

If they call me, I'll happily point out that $4.71 is an easy price to pay on my $120/mo Comcast bill.

BTW, the only single higher Comcast fee is ESPN! I wonder why Comcast doesn't separate out their fee on my bill? ESPN is the biggest block to 'A La Carte' cable channels. Every subscriber subsidizes ESPN and of you had the option of not receiving it, that channel would lose all their income! This is called Socialism, ESPN can NOT function in a Free Market billing system.

Comcast stopped Delaware WHYY public television channel #12
and told us we had to get a box now in order to watch it.
This had nothing to do with high definition TV. They said
the box was free for one year and then we would have to pay
a monthly rental fee.


Will Comcast ever carry The Ski Channel? It's frustrating that it isn't on there yet.

It doesn't matter if no one watches Public Access, it is usually required in a Franchise Agreement between Comcast and counties they serve. Should Comcast decide not to honor the Franchise Agreement, their are plenty of other Cable Companies who would love to move into Vermont and honor such commitments. We are trying to start a Public Access channel in a small county and Maryland and are gearing up for the resistance Comcast will put up.

Comcast is hurting for revenue on their local advertising side and refuse to cut fat on the growing expense of upper management. It is not a model for survival in through the ups and downs of our economy.

I produce commercials for them and they are only interested in the bottom-line, not if commercials work for clients or not. They just want your money, account executives are actually given letter grades for the amount of money they bring in. This worked well in a boom economy, every Mom & Pop biz wanted TV in their ad strategy and could then afford to try. The half baked efforts and by Comcast usually left the small companies simply poorer and Comcast richer. They could care less if they lost a client their was always another up the road to fill that time. Now there are no Mom & Pops who can afford to try cable advertising and Comcast is simply looking for other places to cut expenses rather than their over populated management team and high rent facilities.

Contact your county commissioners and let them know that if Comcast doesn't want to play ball...they can leave the park and not come back. Time Warner, Atlantic Broadband, Verizon Fios....among many other companies would love to sign a new deal and have an opportunity to support community access.


Yeah they don't carry the ski channel, and it's frustrating. I guess there is always one of the satellite services to turn too or FIOS etc.

Like Verizon, the people who run Comcast spend a healthy portion of their profits on lobbyists, lawyers, and public relations, in order to bend the law and shape "public interest" to fit their business model.

Comcast would do better by their shareholders, their employees and their customers by simply running their business according to the law and spend a much smaller portion of their profits, by simply paying the miniscule franchise fees and capital grants that provide local access TV channels in Vermont, in the first place.

No matter how many people are tuning in to RETN or CCTV at any given time, a central fact is that many people only subscribe to cable TV precisely because there are local access TV channels. You may not be glued to CCTV or RETN 24/7 , but you sure as heck want them on the air, when you need to watch them.

Comcast: Turning the community against itself. An old tactic that is easy to see through.
Public Access is about niche programming, it is a community resource to serve the entire community not just cable subscribers. They should be working with the access center to help them improve the way get they get the word out, to help them increase participation. Instead they lobby and or spend money on an obviously bogus survey which seems more like an attempt to discredit the center so Comcast will feel justified in negotiating for a decrease public access funding. If Comcast really wanted to see PEG be effective they should donate more than the 5% franchise fee rather to cut back on funding and then blame the center for not doing better. Because Public Access is supported through an Act of congress though the mechanism which is one derived by an exchange for rights of way. There is no law mandating that the cable company has to pass through PEG funding to it's customers. It appears that cable companies pass it through because all they care about is profit. Now it seems like they are trying to discredit public access, to divide and conquer. Ironically, if they are allowed to succeed, you will end up with the same high cable bill only no local community voices on TV.

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