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Philly Misses Public Access Opportunity

By Aaron Couch, Philly IMC  

Editors Note: Written on 6/6/06

For 23 years cable companies have reneged on their obligation to provide public access television to Philadelphia. Yesterday members of the Philadelphia Community Access Coalition asked City Council to temporarily block a bill that will give Comcast a full cable monopoly in Philadelphia until Comcast delivers on public access. While council waffled the battle is just heating up.

Members of the Philadelphia Public Access Coalition in City Council

"This is the closest we've been in 23 years," Jonathan Stein, lawyer for and member of the Philadelphia Community Access Coalition (PCAC), testified yesterday in a hearing before city council's Public Works and Public Property committee. The PCAC is currently in negotiation with the city and Comcast to fund a public access television corporation.

Instead of moving forward Comcast and the city are locked in a blame game that has lasted over two decades. Both the City's Joseph James and Comcast's Kathleen Sullivan testified to tacit support for public access. Sullivan described her company as "ready, willing, and able." For Philadelphia, the only major city without public access, progress gets lost somewhere in between.

The PCAC hoped yesterday that City Council would hold off on Comcast's acquisition of "Area II" until Comcast promises to come through. Instead a bill allowing Comcast to acquire a Philly monopoly passed through committee by a unanimous vote and will be heard by the full Council next week.

Area II is one of four franchise licenses in the city covering parts of North, Northwest, and West Philadelphia and including 49,000 subscribers.

Comcast's impending acquisition is part of a major shakeup in the cable industry as both Time Warner and Comcast feast on the carcass of Adelphia. As the two giants divvy up Adelphia's franchises they have agreed to trade licenses in cities which either has the upper hand. Thus Philly, in which three of the four franchise licenses are currently leased to Comcast, will soon be all Comcast.

This is troubling to members of the Community Access Coalition and others who note that Comcast funds public access in many other cities. And since a 1983 ordinance cable companies have been legally bound to provide public access here.

In fact, the $600,000 a year dictated in the 1983 ordinance has been collected by the city but used elsewhere .

"We ask that you not pass this bill," PCAC coalition member and Kensington Welfare Rights Union staple Joy Butts testified, "until Comcast make a public commitment to fully fund public access."

Joshua Breitbart, coordinator of the Philly Grassroots Cable Coalition , also testified in support of public access. His testimony focused however on Comcast's refusal to allow other service providers to air Philadelphia sports teams calling on council to close the " Comcast Loophole ."

While a commitment to public access from Comcast has not yet come there are reasons to be optimistic. The PCAC, the city, and Comcast are currently negotiating a deal that would bring 5 channels and a community media center to the city. After the hearing Councilman Darryl Clarke signaled he hoped negotiations might reach a breakthrough before the bill allowing the transfer comes to the full council next week.


Public Access in Philadelphia

According to the PCAC , public access TV in Philly would include:

. FIVE public cable TV channels that anyone can get a show on.

. NINE public television studios that anyone can use to make a show.

Public Benefit

A study by the William Penn Foundation found that dozens of community groups would be interested in using public access. Dozens more who are members of PCAC are also committed to using public access.

Public Access Nationwide

There are over 1700 public access centers in the U.S. Philadelphia is largest city without one. Most cities have a budget that far exceeds the $300,000 to $500,000 currently being discussed.


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