Free Speech Ain't

Tucson's Cable TV Provider Tries To Wriggle Out Of Its Public Access Obligations

By Jeff Smith

BACK IN 1982 when the City of Tucson was dickering with a handful of cable television companies over who'd get the first franchise to pipe pictures into local living rooms, the city's first cable administrator fought like the Machiavellian wolverine she truly is to assure Tucsonans of long-term benefits they weren't at all certain they actually wanted.

Smith We'll take a moment here to masticate the preceding paragraph, which is, admittedly, a chunk. That Machiavellian wolverine image taxes even me.

But Jan Lesher, a winsome lass in her 20s at the time, proved strong and determined and altogether clear of mind as to where cable television in Tucson ought to be heading. Her youthful experience in politics, coupled with family and social ties to local movers and shakers, made her formidable beyond her years when it came to the unwritten agendas of the political players whose public pronouncements did not match their private machinations and manipulations. The Cable Wars, as the franchising process came to be known, resulted in a potentially lucrative franchise for Cox Cable, and a potentially marvelous educational and entertainment TV system for Tucson.

Potency was everywhere and, as is the case where unfulfilled centers of power await the strong and quick, the politicking was fierce. I know because that was my news beat in 1982, and I liked what Jan Lesher was doing, especially in the area of public access channels for the newborn local cable system. I saw then, as I still do, an important outlet for grassroots communication and exercise of First Amendment rights.

Other local influence makers were not so enthused about public access as Lesher and I were. Her boss, then-City Manager Joel Valdez, and my boss, then-publisher Gerald Garcia of the Tucson Citizen, were golfing buddies with then-Cox Cable kahuna Tom Hilderbrand. The three of them pretty much saw cable channels dedicated to public access as a pain in the ass, and money paid by Cox to underwrite public access, under terms of the contract, as cash that would have been better used in greens fees and seaside vacations for folks like themselves.

Aggravating this political David-and-Goliath struggle was the fact that the broader public tended not to get emotionally stirred over public access. 'Tis ever thus: Somebody has to fight the good fight at the margins of personal freedom. Garcia finally fired me, and Lesher sickened of City Hall politics and moved on, but the good work she pioneered in public access continued under Sam Behrend and Lamonte Ward at the Tucson Community Cable Corp.

Now, 15 years after its inception, and while contract renewal is being battled, signs of crumbling support for public access are cause for alarm. Even though the Great Unwashed still don't seem to care. Not enough anyway. An intermediate memo of understanding reached last week between the City Council and TCI, the current cable franchisee, would return six of the 13 public access channels to TCI, and cut required funding by TCI by about 60 percent. The preliminary deal was approved 4-3, with Molly McKasson, Steve Leal and José Ibarra dissenting. Bless their hearts.

If the deal sticks would it fatally weaken public access? According to Lesher, and Ward, who still helps run Access Tucson, not necessarily. If other system-wide improvements required by the new contract happen, and if TCI willingly pays a 2 percent sales tax on revenues, as they say they will if they get off the hook for public access, the city might get a couple of the lost access channels back, eventually, and the city might subsidize public access with some of those sales tax dollars.

Pardon me all the hell, but that's a lot of conditional conditions. Call me a cynic, but I'd rather see greater certainty for the long-term viability of public access. And I'd rather see the corporation that is enriched by the Tucson franchise--to the tune of about $30 million a year--foot the bill. And speaking of bills, what's this crap about TCI printing a breakout of how much each subscriber is paying each month for public access, and including it in your cable bill?

It's a cheap trick to turn the public against access. Most cable subscribers are more concerned with sports, movies, soft-porn and hard-sell shopping channels than with locally produced, often-amateurish public access programming. So they chafe at the few pennies access costs them, and TCI flogs them into a frenzy by spelling it out in black and white on the bill. Okay, if that's how you want it, let's break down the money TCI budgets for cocktails over lunch among the company brass, two-ply toilet paper for the executive crapper, donations to the boss' wife's favorite charity, all the other perks the subscribers are paying for...unknowingly, perhaps unwillingly.

Public access is important. A lot of the programming may be lame, a little of it may be outright offensive, but you can't have the benefits of grassroots communication, video literacy, cutting-edge technology available to the poor and quiet as well as the wealthy and loud-mouthed, without accepting this downside. It's the old truism about the rights of the greatest of us not being secure, as long as the rights of the least of us are in jeopardy.

What has assured the rights of the least of us--as exercised through Access Tucson--has been a dedicated source of operating money, and a contractually guaranteed sufficiency of channels for programming. These guarantees set public access somewhat apart from the petty politics that could have stifled the free exercise of the First Amendment. For 15 years it did, at any rate.

Now, if the new franchise agreement puts public access funding in the lap of the City Council, subject to annual budgetary review in which just four politically motivated votes will decide its fate, you can easily appreciate the chilling effect this will have on public access.

I think the arrangement devised a decade and a half ago was a brilliant notion, and I hope the mayor and council rethink it, and renew it.

AND ANOTHER THING: Sunday is Norma's birthday. If you've been watching the back page of The Weekly you've seen the sly hints, so now the word is officially out.

Norma Muniz of the Yankee Doodle is hitting the big 7-oh. Seven decades on planet Earth, most of which, it would seem, have been spent peddling pizza. There are few enterprises of humankind that loom as large as providing sustenance to one's fellows. Few forms of food rank as high as pizza in the food-chain. Few pizzas are as good as the pie they serve at the Yankee Doodle. I've been eating there, eating their pizza, for 44 years. Scout's honor. Norma and Joe and David and Gary have been hustling those pizzas for something like 28 years.

So this Sunday, from 1 p.m. till next morning, there's going to be this huge celebration of Norma's 70th birthday, with music and beer and pizza and hugs and kisses. Be there. North side of Grant just east of Campbell. You can buy me a slice of pepperoni and give Norma some noogies. TW

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