West

THE ARGUMENT

Should cable companies be required to offer high-definition channels for local access programming?

YES

Ruth B. Balser

State representative, Newton Democrat

State Representative Ruth B. Balser

Along with more than 80 legislative co-sponsors, I filed a bill this session that would help to ensure that our local public, education, and government (PEG) channels survive and thrive. An Act Supporting Community Access Television requires cable operators to carry local access channels in the same manner as all other primary broadcast channels by making them available in the high-definition tier, and by giving the local stations the ability to display the electronic program guide.

Earlier in my political career, constituents would stop me in the street or at the grocery store to say “I saw you on TV the other night.” As the years passed, I heard the comment less often. What changed is the explosion in the number of cable channels, and the exclusion of community shows from the high definition tier. In the past, people would flip through channels with their remotes and stumble on to a local show that caught their eye, then stay there and watch. Now, searching through channels in the 800s, one rarely lands on the local channels, which are located in the 20s!

To make matters worse, community access shows are listed in the guide only as “local programming.” While one can search to find “Better Call Saul,” one cannot search and find “Conversation with your State Rep.”

Advertisement

While teams of talented citizens are working hard at their local community access television studios, many in the community do not have the benefit of watching the shows that are produced. Our local access channels offer coverage of local government proceedings and community events, providing an important avenue for citizens to stay involved and aware of what is happening in their communities. At a time when “fake news” is easily accessible, the integrity of the media is being questioned, and interest in civic engagement is growing, these local channels are more critical than ever.

Get Fast Forward in your inbox:
A look at the news and events shaping the day ahead, delivered every weekday.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Local PEG channels provide a great service to our communities. The proposed legislation will require that cable companies improve access to these channels. and that will help to ensure the continued success of community access television.

NO

Paul R. Cianelli

President, New England Cable & Telecommunications Association

Paul R. Cianelli

Public access television is a staple of cable television programming, one that cable customers in communities west of Boston and elsewhere in Massachusetts support directly through dedicated fees and cable companies support through capital payments. Legislation currently proposed by PEG groups to require high-definition local access channels would increase costs to consumers, take negotiating power away from local officials who know best, and be 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 PEG 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 PEG 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 PEG 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. And it speaks for itself that not a single consumer appeared at a recent legislative hearing in Massachusetts to support the PEG group’s HD legislation.

Many of cable’s competitors don’t carry PEG channels, whether they be satellite providers or so called over-the-top providers like Apple TV or 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 PEG channels.

Advertisement

Municipal negotiations for cable license renewals are the best environments for PEG high-definition carriage decisions. To that end, some communities have asked for and received HD PEG channels from carriers like RCN, so local cable negotiations are clearly still working. Ironically, PEG groups stood shoulder-to-shoulder with cable companies to keep cable licensing in the hands of local officials who know their communities’ needs and have the legal power to negotiate with providers. To see PEG groups seek to take away those powers from local officials, while increasing consumer costs, is confusing at best.

Last week’s argument: Should out-of-state driver’s licenses be acceptable for purchasing alcohol in Massachusetts?

Yes: 95.83% (23 votes)

No: 4.17% (1 votes)

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