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David Gauthier

David Gauthier
David Gauthier

Executive director of Winchester Community Access & Media; vice president, MassAccess; Salem resident

The Federal Cable Communications Act of 1984 states, among many other provisions, that its purpose is to “assure that cable systems are responsive to the needs and interests of the local community.” So began the noble practice of delivering emerging technologies and local content to cable viewers. It also began an adversarial relationship between community stations and cable providers.

Never a partner, and not quite a customer, local channels have been simply an obligation to big cable from the beginning. MassAccess, which advocates for community media in Massachusetts, has filed An Act Supporting Community Access Television to require cable companies to carry local channels “equivalent in quality to local broadcast signals,” which currently means high definition. It would also grant local channels access to electronic programming guides so that viewers might know exactly what they are watching or search for and record programming just as they would on any other station.

It is unfortunate that something that seems so logical would need to come to this level of legislation, but the cable industry has mostly refused to discuss high definition and programming guides in contract negotiations despite the fact that a large majority of community stations are ready to deliver HD signals now.


The industry has stated that the bill would be preempted by federal law and the First Amendment. Our lawyers and the dozens of legislators who cosigned the bill disagree. The industry also will contend that if they move community stations to the HD tier, it will be at the expense of other cable channels. However, blank channels on HD named “local” or “government access” already exist on several platforms.

These companies are doing their customers a disservice by delivering local channels in sub-standard quality while passing on the cost of community media back to their subscribers in the form of monthly fees.


Community media has matured and evolved since its early days. We are thousands of professionals, volunteers, students, seniors, legislators, and artists who believe in the creation, presentation, and preservation of local content. We are not asking for special treatment, we are asking for equal treatment. This was the intent of the Cable Communications Act of 1984 and this is what cable subscribers in Massachusetts deserve.


Paul R. Cianelli

President, New England Cable & Telecommunications Association

Paul Cianelli
Paul Cianelli

Public access television is a staple of cable programming, one that customers in communities north of Boston and elsewhere in Massachusetts support directly through dedicated fees and cable companies support through capital payments. Legislation currently proposed on Beacon Hill by public access groups to require high definition local access channels would increase costs to consumers, take negotiation power away from local officials who know best, and is out of touch with modern consumer behavior and federal laws.

While public access television is a tradition in many communities, the simple truth is that changes should come from local cable license negotiations.

In surveys taken during local negotiations, it is clear consumers don’t want to pay the cost for high definition public access channels. Local HD access channels would increase fees paid by consumers and significantly disrupt the consumer channel guide experience.

Consumers know the differences between commercial programmers like sports networks and public access channels. Federal law distinguishes public access and commercial channels as well. The Federal Cable Act also explicitly prohibits state and local governments from placing conditions on a cable operator’s technology.


It speaks for itself that not a single consumer appeared at a recent legislative hearing to support the public access group’s HD legislation.

Many of cable’s competitors don’t carry public access channels, whether it’s satellite providers or premium providers such as Netflix. Video consumers want ownership over their video choices, not to have their decisions made for them by state government. The legislation would put a costly mandate on cable subscribers in an extremely competitive marketplace where many providers do nothing for public access channels.

Municipal negotiations for cable license renewals are the best environments for public access high definition decisions. To that end, some communities have asked for and received HD public access channels from carriers such as RCN, so local cable negotiations are clearly still working.

Ironically, public access groups stood shoulder to shoulder with cable companies to keep licensing in the hands of local officials who know their communities’ needs and have the legal power to negotiate with providers. To see public access groups seek to take away those powers from local officials, while increasing consumer costs, is confusing at best.

LAST WEEK’S ARGUMENT:Should Massachusetts lift the family cap on welfare benefits?

Yes: 68.82% (448 votes)

No: 31.18% (203 votes)

As told to Globe correspondent John Laidler. He can be reached at laidler@globe.com.