Cable Trouble

Will Local Public Access TV Take It In The Shorts As The City And TCI Negotiate A New Contract?
By Rick Emrich

TCI, THE CABLE TV company serving residents within Tucson city limits, has reached an impasse in informal negotiations with city officials to renew its license, which expires December 6.

The stall in talks means it's likely the current license agreement will end before a new contract is in place. That possibility worries representatives of Access Tucson, the organization responsible for administering public access shows on the cable system. They're concerned about how access and other issues will be addressed when a new agreement is reached.

Access Tucson officials are also worried about how access will be funded during an interim period between contracts. Though not a party to the negotiations, Access Tucson's future hinges on how its funding is written into the renewal. With the deadline looming and no guarantee public access will be paid for past December 6, they've appealed to the city for support.

According to City Telecommunications Administrator Bob Hunnicutt, one major sticking point in the talks is the level of support the company will provide for public, education, and government channels (PEGs) like those run by Access Tucson. Hunnicutt said the city will proceed with a formal negotiation process, which has been in preparation since May, while still "keeping the door open" for more informal discussions with TCI.

The city license agreement allows the cable company to string coaxial cable across public rights of way (such as telephone poles) in order to sell its TV service to subscribers.

In return, the cable company must agree to provide certain specified services to the community. Cable licenses generally address issues such as the number and kinds of channels a cable system offers; minimal levels of customer service; the availability of new information services; and the support and number of channels set aside for PEGs. TCI is the fifth company to operate Tucson's system since the cable license was granted in 1981. Since it was originally written, the city's license agreement has been amended no fewer than a dozen times.

The current agreement mandates 13 PEG channels on the TCI cable system. Four of these are allotted to Access Tucson for public access programming. The rest are set aside for channels run by the Tucson/Pima Arts Council, the University of Arizona, Pima Community College, Tucson Unified School District, and the city. Under the current contract, funding for PEGs comes from money TCI gives to the city.

Ken Watts, TCI general manager, told The Weekly that TCI and the city are "getting close" to an agreement on the issues, including public access. "Access is an important piece of the service we offer," he said, "...and TCI has been consistent in expressing support for access." However, he did not say how that expression of support might translate into cold, hard cash and the number of channels allotted for public access use.

If Watts wasn't specific about how he expects public access to fit into TCI's future, Access Tucson officials say they've gotten a clearer message. In a letter to Mayor George Miller and the City Council, Michael Haggerty, chair of the Access Tucson Board of Directors, said, "TCI has told us in no uncertain terms their position is not to fund public access in the renewal, and that they will seek to recover public and community access channels for commercial use..."

The letter also said TCI informed Access Tucson "they do not feel obligated" to fund public access during an extension period, should the current license expire without a new agreement.

TCI's Debbie Luppold said that, during recent negotiations with the city, the company "put a significant amount on the table for capital costs for access," a sum she said was "well in excess of $650,000 per year." But she and Watts maintain federal regulations prohibit the city from requiring that TCI fund operating costs, such as staff salaries, for public access.

Operating costs take up the largest chunk of Access Tucson's budget, which last year came within a stone's throw of $1 million. According to Hunnicutt, however, the city is free to negotiate payment of operating expenses as part of the renewal.

Originally, the Tucson cable license contract required the licensee to provide $30.5 million for access and community programming over a 15-year period. But that figure was reduced as cable operators sought relief from the terms of the original license. In 1990, when Cooke CableVision sold out to Robin Cable Systems, the companies negotiated with the city once again to cut public access costs. As part of that pact, the companies promised to provide a $5-million lump sum to the city for future public access and local origination programming. They also agreed that, over the next six years, the licensee would pay an additional $600,000 in regular installments to the city for the same purpose. The city, in turn, set up a schedule of payments it would make to Access Tucson to fund them through the effective period of the license. TCI has picked up the tab for licensee payments since it bought the cable system here in 1995. The last scheduled payment to Access Tucson was October 1.

Opinions vary over what the $5 million paid by Robin and Cooke suggests for funding of public access in the renewed agreement. Sam Behrend, Access Tucson's executive director, describes the money as a "prepayment" by the licensee that was embedded in subscribers' cable rates and represents an ongoing expectation of commitment to public access. "This was not absolution from future obligations," he said. "When TCI bought the system, they took on all the rights, responsibilities, commitments, and assets of the former owner." According to Behrend, TCI has a legal and moral obligation to support public access.

Watts points out TCI's main competitors, People's Choice Television and Direct TV, don't pay for public access and don't pay license fees to the city. This makes it more difficult for the company to keep ahead in a cutthroat industry, Watts said.

But Behrend believes access gives TCI a competitive edge.

"(Access) is one of their successes," he said. "They should market the hell out of it. Their competition doesn't have it." Behrend says he is confident the city will maintain its commitment to public access, and he recognizes that Access Tucson's success hinges on TCI's ability to make a profit. But he is still apprehensive about the outcome of negotiations.

"This is between the city and TCI," he says. "We're sitting on the sidelines watching the gunfight and hoping we don't get caught in the crossfire." TW

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