MetroBeat TV

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MetroBeat TV
and the Changing Shape of Public Interest Television
in the Denver, Colorado, Metropolitan Area

[notes toward a project]

Background

The PEG (Public, Education, Government) channels were intended by the U.S. Congress to constitute a public interest use of the cable medium.

Cable television in its early days was thought to constitute an alternative to the (then) domination of television by the three broadcast networks.

PEG channels are available only on cable, not via broadcast or satellite.

The PEG channels are distinct from “public television” channels (channels 6 and 12 in the Denver area).

“Public television” channels are supported in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB).

PEG channels receive no support from the CPB.

CPB funding supports, in part, national distribution of programs.

PEG channels are intended to be local in focus.

Federal legislation required cable companies to provide facilities and equipment for PEG channels in their local franchise areas.

Municipalities were authorized to collect franchise fees and PEG fees to support the operations of the PEG channels.

Typically, the government access channel makes available live broadcasts of city council meetings and other municipal bodies such as a planning commission.

Typically, the educational access channel makes available live broadcast of local school board meetings and perhaps other educational programming.

The public access channel was intended to provide citizens with direct access to the cable medium. Citizens may appear on the channel to voice their opinions, produce videos and live programs for broadcast on the channel, and participate in the administration and policy-making of the public access station.

Recent federal legislation has removed many of the requirements for cable companies to provide facilities and equipment for the PEG channels.

Municipalities are cutting funding for public access stations and so requiring them to become in large part self-supporting.

Municipalities have been continuing to fund government access channels, and expanding the role of government channels into supporting production of programs dealing with public policy issues

Not much attention is paid to the education channel.

An intergovernmental group of Denver area municipalities (the Greater Metro Telecommunications Consortium) works in cooperation with the large telecom providers (originally cable and now telephone) to advance the fortunes of government channels.

The activities of large telecom companies such as Comcast show the effects of combining basic telecommunications transport service and content production in one entity.

MetroBeat TV shows the combination of transport, content and direct government support.

Denver

(http://www.denvergov.org/)

The Denver area has been a longtime center of cable industry activity and influence. It was home to TCI, the largest cable operator in the country at the time it was acquired by AT&T in 1999. The legacy of Denver’s cable activity is visible today across the metro area.

Cable Center (http://www.cablecenter.org/about/index.cfm)
“The Cable Center [located on the University of Denver campus] was created to educate, to remember, and to influence. It’s both a destination and launching pad. It’s part repository, part incubator. It’s a busy, active environment where the cable industry, the education community, and the general public go to learn, to advance their careers, and to enhance their understanding of cable telecommunications.”

Cableland (http://www.denvergov.org/CableLand)
“Cableland, Official Residence of the Mayor of Denver, is a 19,500-square-foot mansion, originally owned by cable TV mogul Bill Daniels.”

Cable Labs (http://www.cablelabs.org)
A private, members only, national cable industry R&D consortium located in Louisville, Colorado, “dedicated to helping its cable operator members integrate new cable telecommunications technologies into their business objectives.”

Comcast Media Center (http://www.comcastmediacenter.com)
A 350,000 square foot national video production and management facility (formerly owned by TCI), along with a large satellite distribution facility.

Magness Arena (http://denverpioneers.cstv.com/facilities/denv-magness-arena.html)
An 8,000 seat indoor event arena on the University of Denver campus, named after Bob Magness, one of the founders of TCI.

Daniels College of Business of the University of Denver (http://www.daniels.du.edu)
Named after Bill Daniels, one of the founders of the cable industry in the 1950s (donated “Cableland” to the city of Denver).

Comcast Corporation

(http://www.comcast.com)

Comcast is the dominant, and in most cases, sole, cable television provider in most Denver area communities. Comcast, headquartered in Philadelphia, is the largest cable operator in the country. It acquired TCI’s cable assets from AT&T.

“Comcast is principally involved in the development, management and operation of broadband cable networks and in the delivery of programming content.”

“The Company’s content networks and investments include E! Entertainment Television, Style Network, The Golf Channel, OLN, G4, AZN Television, PBS KIDS Sprout, TV One and four regional Comcast SportsNets [1]. The Company also has a majority ownership in Comcast-Spectator, whose major holdings include the Philadelphia Flyers NHL hockey team, the Philadelphia 76ers NBA basketball team and two large multipurpose arenas in Philadelphia.” (http://www.cmcsk.com/phoenix.zhtml?c=147565&p=irol-factsheet)

Comcast currently has:

- 23.3 million cable customers in 39 states
- 10 million high-speed Internet customers
- 1.6 million voice customers
- 87,000 employees.

Comcast is developing regional programing networks. “CN8, The Comcast Network (http://www.cn8.tv) provides more than 9 million Comcast cable homes with a unique brand of live, interactive television delivered over its own fiber-optic network to 12 states and 20 television markets, stretching from Maine to Virginia, and Washington, D.C.” CN8’s mission is to “ reshape and revolutionize regional television and its relevance to local, regional and national viewers.” (http://cn8.tv/channel/article.asp?lChannelID=603&lArticleID=4306&subhead=netwrk)

Comcast also has its own channel in Colorado. “Comcast Entertainment Television launched on September 1, 2004. It provides exclusive content and entertainment that relates to Colorado communities, and that is exclusive to Colorado and the Front Range. Programming includes documentaries, movies, high school sports, music, and lifestyle shows.” (http://www.comcast.com/cet, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comcast_Entertainment_Television)

The Greater Metro Telecommunications Consortium

(http://www.gmtc.org)

The Greater Metro Telecommunications Consortium (GMTC), was formed by Denver area municipalities to present a united front to large cable (and later telephone) companies during franchise negotiations.

“The Greater Metro [Denver] Telecommunications Consortium (GMTC) is a board of [municipally appointed] local government representatives who work together on telecommunications issues. It was originally formed in 1992 to facilitate franchise agreements with local cable television companies....”

The board and membership of the GMTC consists of appointed municipal and county employees such as the Assistant to the City Manager of Greenwood Village, the Director of the Office of Telecommunications for the City and County of Denver, the Public Communications Manager for the City of Northglenn and the Information Systems Manager for Adams County. (http://www.gmtc.org/membership/membership_directory.asp)

The GMTC represents local government channels exclusively. It includes no representation of the other PEG access communities, public access, or educational access, and no general public representation.

GMTC recently completed negotiations with Qwest Communications (the successor to a former baby Bell regional telephone company, now seeking to begin video distribution; www.qwest.com) on a new model video franchise agreement for the metro area. (http://www.gmtc.org/reg_auth/GMTC_QWEST_5_11_06.asp)

The model franchise contains provisions for video on demand (VOD) facilities for government access channels, and an additional government access channel for regional programming. The regional channel would be programmed by the GMTC. No VOD facilities requirements or additional regional channels were included for public access or educational access channels.

GMTC members recently produced a program shown on government access channels entitled “Metro Voices: Capitol Review 2006.” The program focused on legislative issues during the state’s 2006 legislative session and brought together members of the Colorado General Assembly, a member of the governor’s staff and reporters from local newspapers. (http://www.gmtc.org/metro_voices/default.asp)

[A similar program called "The Boulder Show" has been airing on the Boulder government channel for about three years. Boulder is about 25 miles from Denver and although not a member of the GMTC, does broadcast MetroBeat. “"The Boulder Show" is an exciting one-hour program on local issues, events, and people. Every month, through roundtable discussions and editorial feedback, the show provides viewers with an insight to the opinions, personalities and politics at play in local policy debates.” (http://www.bouldercolorado.gov/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=2549&Itemid=855)]

MetroBeat TV

(http://www.metrobeat.tv)

MetroBeat is described by Comcast as “a collaborative project of the Government Affairs Division of Comcast and 26 municipal access television stations (Channel 8s) in the Greater Denver Metropolitan Area.” (http://www.metrobeat.tv/pressroom)

Launched in November, 2005, MetroBeat is a pilot project limited to the Denver metro area. It is scheduled to run until December 2006, after which the project will be evaluated to determine if it is suitable to roll out to the rest of the country. The MetroBeat project is funded by Comcast and overseen by a Comcast senior vice president at corporate headquarters in Philadelphia.

The focus of MetroBeat is on local interest programming. The project is described as “a forum for highlighting people, issues and events of local interest and concern...” (http://www.metrobeat.tv/about.aspx).

MetroBeat programming consists of a two and a half hour block of programs and commercials for Comcast produced once a month by Comcast and distributed on DVD to Denver area municipalities for broadcast on government access channels. The programs are well produced, with professionals in front of and behind the cameras.

MetroBeat programs are interrupted at regular intervals for commercials (just as regular commercial tv programs). The commercials are all for Comcast, no other companies are mentioned.

The commercials included with the programming are not direct solicitations of the ‘for only $29.95 for the first 3 months you can get ...’ type.

MetroBeat commercials emphasize the partnership between Comcast and the local government (channel 8 is the government access channel in most municipalities) and Comcast’s benevolent involvement with the community :

Comcast and Channel 8. Connecting you to your local community.

Comcast. Your neighborhood is our neighborhood.

Thank you Comcast.

When a local resident questioned why commercials for a for-profit corporation were appearing on the noncommercial government access channel, they were said to be not commercials but “PSAs [public service announcements]” by lawyers for Comcast and officials of the city of Denver (“Not the Same Old Show,” Denver Post, January 11, 2006, p. C-1).

MetroBeat was launched on Denver area government access channels through the efforts of the GMTC. A number of members of the GMTC publicized the project on their municipal web sites. Denver posted an announcement of the project on its web site, with links to the MetroBeat and Comcast web sites. The announcement included favorable quotes from a city staff member who helped to develop MetroBeat and the Comcast vice president overseeing the project (http://www.denvergov.org/newsarticle.asp?id=9536).

Other area cities promoting MetroBeat on their web sites included Lakewood (http://www.lakewood.org/index.cfm?&include=/kltv8/DESC-OTHER/kltv-desc2-other.cfm), Golden (http://ci.golden.co.us/files/mbtvschedule.pdf), Broomfield (http://www.ci.broomfield.co.us/media/031606.shtml) and Greenwood Village (http://www.greenwoodvillage.com/files/newsletter2006/October2006/channel8.pdf).

One local community (Louisville, Colorado) broadcast “Thank you Comcast” commercials on its government access channel throughout much of the course of its negotiations for a new franchise agreement with Comcast. Louisville’s legal advisor for the franchise negotiations, who also served as the legal counsel for the GMTC, voiced strong support for MetroBeat.

MetroBeat Access Model vs. Public Access Model

The MetroBeat project is billed as “grassroots” in nature, but its public access model is far different than the access model of a public access tv station. MetroBeat’s public access model consists of citizens sending in ideas and suggestions for programming via email.

“A unique aspect of MetroBeat TV is that it is viewer-designed programming. Viewers throughout the metro Denver area submit story ideas and topics for future shows through the www.metrobeat.tv web site. This process supports the grassroots nature of the project.” (http://www.metrobeat.tv/pressroom)

“We're always looking for new program ideas for MetroBeat TV. If you have story ideas or people you’d like to see us profile, email your ideas and suggestions to us at info@metrobeat.com or fill out the form below.” (http://www.metrobeat.tv/contact.aspx)

By contrast, the public access model for public access television stations is direct participation. Citizens may appear on the channel to voice their opinions, produce videos and live programs for broadcast on the channel, and participate in the administration and policy-making of the station.

The MetroBeat Project Raises a Number of Issues

- Should local governments partner with private sector media companies to distribute media products dealing with public policy issues?

- Local government entities act as franchising and regulatory authorities over cable companies. Should a regulatory authority engage in a partnership with a company over which it has regulatory authority?

- Comcast has far more financial, technical, legal and personnel resources than all of the local municipalities combined, and is known for aggressively pursuing its corporate objectives. How equal can this partnership be?

- Should local government officials and staff members be making production and editorial decisions about television programs that deal with public policy issues?

- An increasing number of issues of concern to municipalities will be related to telecom and media issues. These include municipal wireless, the high cost of cable and broadband internet services and the lack of cable competition. Will these kinds of local issues make it into MetroBeat programs?

- Comcast states it is seeking a competitive advantage in the marketplace over satellite tv services by placing MetroBeat programs and commercials on government access channels (which are currently unavailable on satellite). Should government entities intervene in the private marketplace to give advantage to individual companies?

- Comcast has its own channel which it programs, Comcast Entertainment Television, which appears in most Denver area communities. Why does Comcast not use its own channel to broadcast MetroBeat programs, rather than using the government channel?

- Beyond making government operations, programs and documents transparent and accessible to citizens, is there a role for government-produced media?

Alansobel 14:02, 10 December 2006 (EST)