by J Scott Christianson, Columbia Daily Tribune Columnist
The Missouri Senate is considering one of the best-written pieces of legislation to come before it in some time: Senate Bill 284, the Missouri Video Franchise Bill. It should be a good bill, considering how much money AT&T spent to write it.
The video franchise bill has something in it for every large telecommunications company: reducing public oversight, eliminating local control, cherry-picking high-profit customers and protection from prying public auditors. It would be wonderful – if it weren’t such a complete betrayal of the public trust.
SB 284’s most important feature is to strip local government of its authority to regulate companies that offer video services. Right now, local cable television companies receive their licenses to operate from the municipalities they serve. Cable TV companies get to use a city’s rights of way for running their lines. In return, local municipalities receive a franchise fee and are provided a few channels for local citizens and government to use, so-called PEG – for public, education and government access – channels. Until now, this arrangement seemed like a reasonable exchange for the huge benefit of accessing city rights of way.
The Missouri Video Franchise Bill will eliminate local control and charge the state Public Service Commission with licensing cable and telephone companies that offer video services. In fact, the bill doesn’t give the PSC any real power to question or deny an application – making the PSC nothing more than a rubber stamp. Simultaneously, the requirements for offering services are drastically reduced: Companies can’t be required to provide certain services or offer service to all areas of a city.
If SB 284 passes, cable and telecommunications companies will still be able to use the local rights of way, which include all of the city’s easements across every homeowner’s property. Municipalities will be prohibited from regulating how companies use these easements. In Texas, which has already passed similar legislation, several homeowners were surprised to find out that AT&T could place 10-foot-by-10-foot equipment boxes in their front yards without their consent or any local approval.
These changes are enough for SB 284 to achieve its main objective: letting companies cherry-pick the areas where the most profit can be had. The video franchise bill will also largely do away with PEG channels by requiring that these channels air eight hours of original programming every day. Unless PEG stations hire the staff needed to produce such programming each week, the cable companies can drop them. Many local stations with multimillion-dollar budgets don’t produce that much original programming each week.
This requirement seems absurd when you consider what is currently on cable TV. I have cable and about 50 channels from which to choose. Half of these channels are normally trying to sell me a Bowflex machine, and the other half are airing an infomercial for “Dual Action Cleanse” – a magic potion that will get rid of the 15 pounds of extra fecal matter that the average person has clogging his or her colon. Not that these aren’t educational programs – did you know that John Wayne had 40 pounds of extra crap in his colon when he died? That should come in handy the next time “Jeopardy!” comes to town.
Cable companies pay a 3 percent to 5 percent franchise fee to local municipalities. SB 284 would route these fees through the Public Service Commission and restrict the ability of municipalities to audit providers to ensure they are paying what is owed. Audits of fee payments often discover hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid fees.
The running joke in the Capitol is that SB 284 is the “Lobbyist Full Employment Act” because so many lobbyists have been hired to get it passed. More accurately, the bill should be called the “Term Limit Corporate Advantage Act” because term limits have caused the General Assembly to lose most of its institutional memory about why cable and telecommunications companies have an obligation to the public in the first place.
The cable and telecommunications industries have undergone wave after wave of deregulation – all in the name of providing better service, more and faster access, increased choice and cheaper rates to the customer. But instead we have gotten higher rates, lower customer service, less local programming and have fallen more behind in broadband access compared with other industrialized nations. That is because deregulation has never been about any of these issues. It has always been about increasing profits. And this bill is no different.