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Quick and Dirty

Please Stand By

By Edward Ericson Jr. | Posted 10/20/2004

A months-long campaign by advocates of public-access television bore fruit last week when the City Council agreed to delay action on a new cable-television contract with cable provider Comcast.

Calling themselves the Baltimore Grass Roots Media Alliance, several dozen demonstrators, including Green Party candidates for city office and members of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, rallied outside City Hall last Wednesday, Oct. 13, before attending a public hearing on the city’s pending 12-year deal with cable TV provider Comcast. The demonstrators included several volunteers who staff and run channel 5, the “public access” channel on Comcast cable in the city.

Amanda Bowers, speaking as a member of the alliance, said the group wants the council and the city Board of Estimates to reject the contract, which the city’s lawyers have negotiated during the past 10 months or so, and negotiate a new deal that’s comparable with other similar jurisdictions. “Washington, D.C., gets 1 percent annual gross revenue for public access,” Bowers said.

Public-access television is one of three types of channels mandated by law; the other two are educational and government. Public-access, educational, and government TV (aka PEG) is normally funded by cable-television systems as part of their deal with local governments to allow for monopoly service providers. But in Baltimore, Comcast gives little money. The government channel is funded by $3.5 million in proceeds from a 1999 lawsuit settlement, but the public-access channel has no money and is run from the mayor’s office, leaving “public access”—which is designed to be an unrestricted forum and which is often critical of government and corporate power—at the mercy of Mayor Martin O’Malley.

Marilyn Harris-Davis, executive director of the Mayor’s Office of Cable and Communications, says public access will be moved out of the mayor’s office as soon as possible. “We have to get through this process first, because this process will determine the dollars that we can work with,” she says.

The contract up for a vote would allot $570,000 for public access’ operating expenses over 12 years, says Mike Shea, a Baltimore Grass Roots Media Alliance member and daily volunteer at public-access channel 5. “If you look at comparable public-access channels, they’re getting about $1 million per year.”

Short of a no-vote on the contract, Baltimore’s public-access community stands no chance of funding near that level. But City Councilman Robert Curran (D-3rd District), who chaired Wednesday’s public hearing, said he hopes to hold a work session for the council, the city’s lawyers, and Comcast’s negotiators on Thursday, Oct. 21. The public will be allowed to observe but not to speak unless asked a question, Curran said.

At the work session, Curran said he hopes to sketch out a deal under which public access could be loaned money to outfit its own studio, using another piece of the $750,000 annual PEG payouts earmarked for capital expenses. “I do believe council will be able to play a role in determining how much funding cable access will have, at least on their capital end,” Curran said.

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