Northampton Renewal Confrontation
Citizens versus Comcast,
Rich Cable, Poor Public
By Edward Shanahan
Having served a decade ago on the city’s Cable Television Committee, I have some familiarity with the frustrating task of dealing with the holder of the lucrative, monopoly franchise.
At that time, the franchise belonged to Continental Cable, which originally wired the city in exchange for a 15-year stranglehold of exclusivity.
Over time as the big cable players bought and sold each other, Continental was taken over by Media One, which, in turn, was gobbled up by AT&T, which eventually in its steady decline and fall sold out to Comcast.
Meanwhile, there were important exchanges and trades of franchises among the cable giants so that each large firm wound up with solid regional blocks of communities where they were the only operating company, thus making it impossible for a community, say Northampton, to threaten to sign on with a rival cable firm as a show of unhappiness. That would be leverage - something the cable firms dreaded.
Ten years ago members of the Cable Television Committee, as well as members of the public, were unhappy with many aspects of Continental Cable’s performance, resulting in public meetings at which citizens aired these complaints.
Chief among the concerns was the need for a better equipped and more fully staffed local access cable channel, which was embedded into the granting of the first contract. To become the city’s initial cable provider, Continental promised the earth and delivered some of it, in terms of advanced equipment for a studio at the high school.
But the second time around at license renewal hearings, Continental cry babied that it could afford to do only the bare minimum in the way of beefing up the access channel equipment and capability.
At about the same time, Congress extended its enthusiasm for deregulation by more or less cutting cable firms free of any constraints in terms of price and programming decisions.
And so the vise tightened – the public was powerless as to any role in pricing or programming of the monopoly cable system; it could not seek to sign with a competing cable system because there were none; and, in fact, the contract that exists does not recognize the rights of the citizens of Northampton and the Comcast but is a pact between the mayor and Comcast.
Just how impotent the public is in dealing with Comcast was highlighted a year or so ago when Frances Crowe and others tried to persuade Comcast to carry – at no cost to the company – the daily Amy Goodman ‘Democracy Now’ program on the local access channel.
I recall meetings with the high-priced suits from Comcast. What arrogance. It was their cable system, not ours, and we better damn well understand that. They would see what they could do. It turned out that would be nothing.
And, so once again, 10 years later, the public is legitimately steamed up about the deplorable state of the local access channel, not to mention many other aspects of the cable system, which the deregulation gods don’t even want us to mention.
At the local level, we don’t have any muscles to flex, and that ‘s precisely the way Washington and Comcast prefer it. Thus, rates for cable along with its affiliated Internet service continue to mount. Most of us pay more each month for cable than for electrical, gas or telephone service, which used to be considered more basic to our lives.
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