Unexpected opportunity or opportunistic ploy? 

Indianapolis currently has two education access channels, one government access channel and no public access channel. That may all change by the June 6 meeting of the Rules and Policy Committee of the City-County Council when the committee expects to be presented with the results of a quickly renegotiated contract with Bright House Networks to provide cable TV in the city.

When Bright House Networks indicated their intention to seek a new cable franchise agreement two years before their current contract expires, Public Access of Indianapolis, a nonprofit community media organization, saw an unexpected opportunity to fulfil their decade-long mission to re-establish public access TV in Indianapolis. (Local access channels are usually funded by a proportion of the fees cable companies pay for the ability to use public rights-of-way to lay their cable.) PAI President Andrea Price says, “We have a tremendous opportunity through a new local contract with Bright House Networks — or through the state — to gain a public access channel that will strengthen community resources.” PAI and about 60 supporting local organizations want to see the number of PEG (public, education, government) access channels adjusted upward to include at least one public access channel. City-County Council President Monroe Gray Jr. states the council’s support for getting a public access station as well.

Bright House, however, is proposing instead to cut PEG access channels to two or even one, echoing a tactic they tried unsuccessfully late last year in Tampa, Fla. Bright House sought early renewal of its cable franchise agreements in Tampa using the results of a study it funded to make the case that local PEG channels were under-utilized and therefore should be reduced from six to three and those three available on demand only to customers willing to pay for a digital set-top box.

As Indianapolis lost its community-access channel when the current contracts with Bright House and Comcast Cable were renewed in 1996, no viewership statistics are available. However, the most recent survey of Indianapolis cable subscribers, done in 1998, indicated that the overwhelming majority — 84 percent — thought it valuable to have at least one local cable television channel available for use by the community and 72 percent thought such a channel important.

A new telecommunications law that moves regulation of cable companies from local jurisdictions to the state takes effect on July 1. Cable providers can opt into the new law before Nov. 1, which has provision for new and additional PEG channels, or fulfil their existing contracts. If Bright House succeeds in reducing its obligations before the law becomes effective, the community may be without an accessible channel for the length of the contract.

The June 6 meeting of the Rules and Public Policy Committee at 5:30 p.m. in Room 260 of the City-County Building at 200 E. Washington St. is the public forum for discussing the future of community access TV in Indianapolis. Interested parties are encouraged to attend and to visit the PAI Web site at www.indyaccess.org for more information on the issue.

Kathleen Dobie is a local writer, editor and activist. She is a member of PAI.

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