On Feb. 23 the House Business Committee of the Idaho Legislature passed a bill that would eliminate the capital funding source for public access channels like Treasure Valley Community Television. In an unanimous voice vote the committee sent Bill 539 to the full House with a do-pass recommendation.
Currently cable companies like CableOne pay a franchise fee to local governments--more than $1 million to the City of Boise in the last fiscal year--as part of a contract agreement created before services like DirecTV and Dish Network were started. The fee is designed to compensate for the company's wires, which crisscross beneath public land or the public right of way.
According to Ed Lodge with CenturyLink, the 13-page bill would change the way cable providers negotiate contracts with local communities and would open up opportunities for new cable providers, bringing competition and bigger returns for cities. It would also eliminate Public Educational Governmental, or PEG, fees, which make up the majority of funding for local-access channels like TVCTV.
"It has passed in 20 states. They have enacted statewide franchising," said Alex McNish, TVCTV executive director. "We've seen that municipalities have lost money, that franchises have closed. This promise that it would bring competition and bring prices down, instead, rates have increased. I really don't see any benefit other than to the corporation and their bottom line."
TVCTV provides commercial-free programming to the valley at the cost of 10 cents per month, per cable subscriber--which numbered 85,000 at last estimate. That is a total of $1.20 per person, per year, or $102,000 overall. Satellite customers don't pay this fee.
"We provide live Boise City Council meetings. It's a forum and a format for people to make and produce their own TV shows. That funding comes from the cable operator in agreement with the municipality, in this case Boise, they provide us three channels--11, 95 and Channel 98."
For McNish and other public-access television advocates, the bill seems targeted at their organization. Representatives of the committee asked why public access channels couldn't go the route of Idaho Public Television and stump for cash.
"It's not the free-market approach to television. Our view is, why can't they go out and get sponsorships?" asked Erik Makrush of Idaho Freedom Foundation before the committee began a hearing on Feb. 21.
For McNish, that's not a viable option, given that public access channels were designed to be free from commercial interests in the original conception of cable television.
"We're wondering, why are you squeezing PEG out? This is all in exchange for use of the public rights of way, and the public airwaves, so where does the public benefit in this?"
Boisean Nancy Richards said she watches TVCTV with her husband of 58 years "24-seven."
"I'm physically unable to go to the philharmonic and opera and ballet anymore," said Richards. "So I depend on that. I'm also an inveterate night owl, so I'm on Channel 98, 24-hours a day."
For Richards TVCTV is a window to the outside world--a welcome break from the "commercialized shows" on other channels.
"I spent two-and-a-half months at Boise Health and Rehab," said Richards. "People going by in the hallway used to stop in my doorway and say, 'What is that wonderful radio program you have on?' I said, 'No, it's Channel 98.'"