FOR THE PAST four months, representatives from cable giant Comcast—the biggest cable provider in the U.S., with 26.1 million subscribers, including 170,000 in Seattle—have been meeting with city officials downtown to hammer out a new franchise agreement. The current 10-year agreement, which spells out things like how much Comcast pays for use of the city's right of way, expires in January.
At the same time, a group of public-access television producers have been holding their own meetings, at places like neighborhood libraries. The group, called CPR (Concerned Producers/Public for the Refranchisement of SCAN), is watchdogging the city-Comcast process, to make sure funding for Seattle Community Access Network (SCAN) is protected. Because the public owns the right of way, the cable company is required to provide a public-access channel, along with educational and government channels. What's negotiable is who pays for the basics needed to run it, like equipment and staff.
Public-access advocates allege Comcast has "busted" the community channel in other cities, like Baltimore, by refusing to fund it. They're worried Comcast will refuse to fund public access here, and the city won't be able to pay for it itself. Ultimately, they fear Comcast could reclaim the channel and reprogram it. CPR members have sent letters to city officials, begging them to protect SCAN, and they've been trying to get the word out to the public that SCAN's future might be on the line.
"SCAN is in jeopardy. It's going to be a battle as far as the city going up against Comcast," says Kevin Thompson, a burly guy with a scruffy beard, who produces a live weekly show called Club Diversity at SCAN's North Seattle headquarters. The network currently airs over 150 series each week. Programs run the gamut from Live Eye TV, a program spotlighting local bands like the Catch, to Public Exposure, a government-accountability show that featured former Police Chief Norm Stamper last week. There are programs in languages from Spanish to Amharic, bible study hours and homegrown sitcoms, spiritual gurus and Louis Farrakhan lectures. Thompson's own show is wide-ranging—last Friday's episode discussed hepatitis and the film Murderball. Thompson, who founded CPR, doesn't want that eclectic local mix—something you can only find on SCAN, where any Seattle resident can air something for free—to get lost following a new franchise agreement.
"The bottom line is Comcast doesn't want to dole out any money for public access," he says. Comcast officials have repeatedly denied an organized effort to kill public access in other cities. But in San Jose, a refranchise agreement with Comcast didn't include funding for public access. The city voted it down, partly over that issue, and Comcast pulled San Jose into federal court. A judge dismissed the suit last August.
Under Seattle's current franchise agreement, the cable company—TCI originally, and now Comcast—operated and funded the public-access channel itself. But five years ago, the company turned over the channel's operations to the city, which then formed the nonprofit SCAN to maintain the channel. The city funneled nearly $700,000 a year to SCAN from the original cable company funding. According to SCAN's Executive Director Ann Suter, there will only be about $100,000 left in that fund after this year, so SCAN needs a new funding source to operate the community channel.
That's where Thompson and his cohorts come in. They want the city to hammer out a new franchise agreement mandating that Comcast pay for SCAN (and for things like new digital equipment), possibly by upping the franchise fee from the current 3.5 percent of gross revenues. "The city can charge up to 5 percent," explains Karen Toering, an activist at Reclaim the Media, who helped set up SCAN five years ago. "Why not? Why not get as much as they can?" Otherwise, Seattle would have to find money in the strapped city budget to pay for public-access operations.
Tony Perez, director of the city's Office of Cable Communications, did not return calls by press time. "The city has always been supportive of public access," says D'Anne Mount, spokesperson for the city's Department of Information Technology. Additionally, a "needs assessment" done at the beginning of the refranchise process two years ago named public access as a priority. "We are certainly mindful of that as we have discussions with Comcast," Mount adds.