Despite the joy of the show and its volunteer staff, there are fears that “Chic-A-Go-Go” and many of the other CAN TV programs may be in jeopardy.
A city contract with Comcast, the cable company, is currently up for a ten-year renewal. Comcast has one of three cable franchise agreements with the city. (The other two are held by RCN and WideOpenWest.) The sticking point in negotiations between cable providers and the city is often public-access television, which is rarely profitable for cable companies. So far, Comcast has been hesitant to pledge its full, continued support for CAN TV. Instead, the company has opted for a three-month extension, which began in March, on its negotiations with the City Council’s Committee on Finance, with an option for an additional three months to be granted at the discretion of the city’s Department of Business Affairs & Consumer Protection. As a result of the extension, the financial future of CAN TV remains unclear. Austen suspects that Comcast may be buying time to lobby the city in an attempt to downgrade its funding commitment to public access. (A spokesperson for the company declined to comment on its negotiations with the city.)
According to Barbara Popovic, if Comcast downgrades their funding agreement the station will also receive significantly less funding from RCN, a smaller provider. The contract between RCN and the city, which was negotiated in 2012, includes a “most favored nation” clause that guarantees the company will provide no more public-access funding than Comcast does. “If both Comcast and RCN downgraded their funding agreements,” says Popovic, “seventy-five percent of our operating budget would be affected.”
The suspicion that Comcast may downgrade its support is not without precedent. In 2009, legislation in California allowed Time Warner to cut its funding to Los Angeles’s fourteen public-access stations. (Time Warner is in the process of merging with Comcast.)
“We don’t want to become California,” Austen says. With Gordon Quinn, artistic director of Chicago documentary studio Kartemquin Films, and a few other dedicated activists, Austen has formed the Committee for Media Access. The group is organizing a call-in campaign to bolster public-access support from aldermen.
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