October 21, 2014

Will City cable price hike harm the public’s channels?


On October 15, 2014 Mayor Emanuel announced his 2015 budget for the City of Chicago.  The Chicago Tribune itemized the various increases, including “eliminating an exemption in the cable TV amusement tax, a step that could boost a tax typically passed on to consumers by $12 million.” 

According to the Chicago Sun-Times, up until last year cable companies were credited the 5% franchise fee they pay as part of cable franchises against the City’s 9% amusement tax.  But over the past two years, the City has taken steps to end that practice, with cable fees and taxes paid to the city rising to over 14%.

Since cable first came to Chicago in the early 80’s, Chicago residents have been working to help create, and protect, the most valuable asset to come from cable franchises, CAN TV.   Gordon Quinn recalls that CAN TV’s creation was important because it wasn’t just about creating channels, it was about making sure the funding existed to provide training, equipment and facilities for the public.

Cable companies around the country have been cutting back on their commitment to public channels and services.  This move by the City can result in cable companies putting the squeeze on the less than 1% of funding that goes to CAN TV.  

The hearing on this issue is this Friday, October 24 at 9am. The Committee for Media Access encourages Aldermen to raise this issue and asks them to oppose this change unless the City makes sure CAN TV’s funding is secure now and in the future. 

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September 24, 2014

Mayor’s Comcast support raises concerns

In “Mayor’s Comcast support puts donors over customers,” Chicago Reporter’s Curtis Black reports that Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s endorsement of the $45 billion Comcast-Time Warner merger bid occurred days after Comcast announced it was abandoning its local franchise in Chicago in favor of a state franchise.  Notes Black, “That move raises concerns over some of the issues on which Emanuel offers reassurances to the regulators, and some he ignores- customer service, universal coverage and support for public access TV.”

Black reports that state laws have led to the closing of at least 100 cable access centers. And Comcast's recent closure of the Skokie public access center followed 13 other stations in Illinois communities served by Comcast that closed from 2005-2011.

In the article, Committee for Media Access (CMA) members Gordon Quinn and Phyllis Logan note the importance of public access channels. CMA is seeking public hearings before the Chicago City Council to help ensure Comcast's move to a state franchise won't jeopardize CAN TV or minimize protections for Chicago's Comcast customers. As the Chicago Reporter article notes, "...when the state cable law comes up again in Springfield, whose interests will our elected officials represent - their communities or their contributors?"



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September 13, 2014

We Need Answers about Comcast’s Illinois State Franchise

The City of Chicago has regulated cable companies that do business here from the inception of cable in Chicago.  That has resulted in public benefits and consumer protections in exchange for cable company use of public land.  That changed on August 29 when Comcast officially filed for an Illinois state cable franchise in four out of five of Chicago’s cable areas.  As a result of that change, the City of Chicago will lose its oversight of Chicago’s biggest cable company.  What will this mean for Chicago’s Comcast customers, and for local residents that rely on Chicago’s public access channels at CAN TV? Committee for Media Access (CMA) has requested that the City hold public hearings to give residents an opportunity to get some answers about Comcast’s decision to abandon its City franchise and move that authority to Springfield.   

Our Questions about Comcast’s Move to a State Franchise
  • The City’s local franchise prevents redlining but state law doesn’t. What can the City do to make sure redlining is prevented through a state franchise?
  • The City’s local franchise protects consumers. Under a state franchise, how will the City maintain and enforce consumer protections?
  • Will Comcast continue to participate in the City’s Cable Compliance Reviews?
  • Where will the public go if it has complaints about Comcast? 
  • The City’s local franchise safeguards CAN TV funding.  How will the City make sure CAN TV’s funding is protected in a state franchise?
  • We have consistently said that it is important that that CAN TV’s funding be direct and unrestricted to preserve CAN TV’s financial security. How will state franchise funding for CAN TV be paid?
  • The RCN franchise is for 10 years.  The state law has to be renewed in 2015, what then?
  • Comcast says they plan to fully fund CAN TV, but with the law expiring in 2015, what will the City do to ensure that CAN TV’s funding remains secure?

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September 12, 2014

Committee for Media Access Requests Meeting with Illinois Attorney General

CMA has sent a letter to the Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan requesting a meeting to discuss concerns about Comcast's decision to abandon its negotiations with the City of Chicago and instead to apply for a state franchise, which took place at the end of August.
Local franchises exist to protect consumers, prevent redlining, and ensure cable companies meet public obligations like funding for public access channels. Illinois’ statewide franchise law was passed in 2007 following a push by AT&T to get into the video market.  AT&T and its supporters then claimed that state franchise law would bring in new competitors to existing cable companies.  Instead the law has become the fallback for companies like Comcast that are unwilling to reach agreement with local government.

State franchising has also proven to be ineffective in protecting the public. A glaring example is the law’s requirement that public access channels get equal treatment to commercial channels on any state holder’s system.  AT&T is defying the law by saddling the public’s channels with inferior technology and making those channels hard to find and use.  The AG has not acted to stop this blatant form of discrimination. 

Comcast is apparently only applying for a state franchise for the City of Chicago, keeping its local franchises elsewhere in the state.  As Chicago’s largest cable provider, its decision to pursue a state franchise means a loss of City authority over Comcast.  Local residents will lose access to a local accountability system the City set up to deal with unresolved cable problems and complaints.  And with state law expiring next year, there is the potential for companies like AT&T and Comcast to further downgrade public protections in the law.  

It is critical that the Attorney General Madigan work actively to increase and protect the public benefits that exist in Illinois’ cable franchise law, and to enforce the law on behalf of the public.  Otherwise, what started as a promise for increased competition seven years ago, will look like another example of failed public policy. 

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