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POSTED: July 26, 2010 1:37 p.m.
I don’t think my opinion in this column will sway a position from any one side to another.  In fact, I don’t even think my view on the subject will be countered - it’s that universal.
If we can “reasonably” finance it - we need to have local Public Access TV right here in Bryan County and Richmond Hill.
Bryan County Television .
Who among us would disagree with that sentence?  Okay, maybe DirecTV would object, because they technically cannot provide Public Access Television - only the cable company can.
The key word here though is “reasonably.”  And in my opinion, the answer is “absolutely YES.”  It has come to the point where Bryan County and Richmond Hill cannot afford “not” to make Bryan County Television (BCTV) a reality.
We need “community” news, sports and activities brought into our homes.  High school sports competition produced by high school students, fishing tournaments, talk shows, informative and educational programs made by “neighbors” and to have “live” cameras in the halls of our local governments.
How difficult would that be?
In order to answer that question, you have to look back at the history of cable television and public access.
Briefly, when cable came onto the scene it was meant to bring a better TV signal into remote areas - and they did.  They were charged an “Impact fee” or “cable access routes fee” (like gas and electric) through each area they serviced.  The amount of the “easement fee” was 5% of the cable subscriptions received.
But because the reception was almost always better than the tower receptions, even in the city, cable providers were required by the FCC to re-route those easement fees instead and to “designate” three “channels” in their program line-up that would be earmarked “only” for local community access television.
The cities flourished having those three designated community channels.  They were called PEG.
P = Public.
E = Educational.
G = Government.
Early cable providers HAD to offer these three PEG channels to any County or municipality that had more than three thousand cable subscribers (Bryan County has 5,000 in all for instance).  The cable companies were then required to set aside up to 5% of their subscription fees for this endeavor.
If there were “impacts” to laying cable lines in the community, then the “direct” cost of doing so would be paid by the cable company to the city or county out of the 5%. Tighter budget for the three channels - but reasonable (there’s that word again).
This burden to provide company profits to public access was challenged in court by the cable companies - seems reasonable to me. It went all the way up to the Supreme Court.
In the early eighties, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the cable companies and held that a “private” company (cable) should not be financially required to underwrite “community” related services - it should be voluntary. So, cable companies were no longer “obligated” to provided production equipment, editing space, studios or airtime for the hundreds of channels that were set up.
Naturally, there was a public up-roar. And like an old friend of mine wrote in a song, “The squeaky wheel always gets the oil.”
Once in place, the community didn’t want to give up the experience of seeing their son’s or daughter’s play basketball against their arch rival and many didn’t like to have the lights turned off in City Hall either - even those “in” City Hall who were trying to promote their own reasonable cause.
The lubricating oil this time was provided by Senator Barry Goldwater from Arizona (what’s with that State? Gotta love ‘em). Sen. Goldwater did an end around the Supreme Court ruling by getting passed the 1984 Cable Act Law, which to this day is the law of the land. It trumped the Supreme Court by agreeing with it. Really.
The new law says, yes, cable companies will still be required to provide 5% of their subscriber revenues to go to cities and counties with more than 3,000 accounts. But here’s the change, any county or city which receives that 5% “HAS THE OPTION” of whether or no to utilize all or part of it into Public Access Television or to place that amount in a “general” fund. The cable companies cannot refuse that request.
Both Bryan County and Richmond Hill have designated their 5% allotment from ComCast Cable to be utilized in the general fund.
The City and County collects a “Franchise Fee” from ComCast because it’s the law. It’s also the law that “any county or municipality” has the option instead to require cable companies to finance and support Public Access Television with part or all of the 5%.
The cable company would have to provide the equipment, studio space, editing facilities and three channels of 24/7 airtime.
Many communities didn’t have the ability or need to set up PEG channels. However many, many did. I’d be pressed to find any community that will give the channels back. And they each fought the same issues we face here.
How much will it cost? Where will the money come from? And how can we even think about it with an already ridiculously tight budget?
All good questions - none new. Look, everybody has no money. In fact, the State of Georgia will take over all Cable Franchise Agreements by the year 2015. Wouldn’t it be a lot easier then to offer mounds of DVD tapes of BCTV local programming for “continued broadcast” rather than file a state application? Rhetorical question.
To pay for the Franchise Fee, all ComCast had to do (or any company for that matter) was to attach a “surcharge” to the customer bill to cover the fee. Well, that’s what ComCast did and all cable providers do. In order for ComCast to offer their cable “exclusivity,” they pay a fee to the County, City and Town as a Franchise Fee. ComCast pays out 5% proportionately to Bryan County, Richmond Hill and Pembroke depending on the number of customers in each location.
The Fee’s rough total stands at $300,000 with Richmond Hill being carved out for a little less than 60% of that. What’s the City budget - $6,700,000 plus?
The cost of getting BCTV up and running will be about $150,000 over six months of set up. It will go into a local business supported area or public park area, it will have a staff of three (at first), television studio space, cameras and equipment that can be taken out like a library book (trust me it works), editing facilities, training programs and their designated channels 24/7.
Is ComCast behind BCTV happening? Of course. More customers who can ONLY get BCTV on ComCast obviously would “add” to the County and City’s general fund to a point where they could eventually replenish what was taken out to create BCTV as start-up costs. And I am referring to real dollar value.
There are many, many other benefits, too long to get into depth with here, such as; Advancing our community to the next level by creating a stream of “Ourtown” broadcasts; Communicating and cross promoting our area, “sister stations” around the country offering support and helping defray operating costs, Eventual sponsorships (BCTV will be a non-profit 501c-3 corporation much like PBS only with neighbors and friends you’ll see around town.)
We already have a distinguished group of local folks who comprise the BCTV Ad Hoc Advisory Committee. One, RH marketer/designer, Joy Dunigan, has even set up a new website for the community who want more info: www.bryancountytv.org.
Soon we will present to the City and County a community “request to request” for ComCast to provide the three channels, and start-up fees which are partly already destined to enter the general fund by way of ComCast’s Franchise Fee. That’s all we have to do.
Can we have BCTV cake and reasonably finance it too? Can we replenish the coffers from which it came? My answer is absolutely - YES. It’s been done before by many sister stations. Any Bryan County resident could even do a cooking show showing that cake being made in competition and then sold at the Seafood Festival. After which we can go home and watch the Wildcats and Redskins go undefeated - or close.
 How can we ignore this possibility?
Just add water - and part of the cable 5% surcharge it gets from its customers, money which is already obligated to provide allocated for the purpose - but only if community leaders so choose to request ComCast to do so.

A Ford Plantation resident, Pisano is columnist at large for the Bryan County News.

 

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