October 1, 2004

Chicago Cable Stories: Good News, Bad News

Victory in CAN TV funding efforts

CAN TV is the fleet of public access cable television channels servicing the Chicago community. As Third Coast Press reported throughout the past year, CAN TV spent 2004 in a series of funding struggles. In 2003, due to a temporary freeze on RCN's operation in two cable areas, CAN TV's cable funding dropped by $630,000. In 2004, RCN defaulted on an additional area, putting at risk another $315,000. RCN officially petitioned the city to get out of its payment obligations to CAN TV in three out of four cable areas.

After the 2004 RCN default, the community responded with tremendous support of CAN TV, and the backlash against RCN was swift. Within two months, the Chicago Cable Commission approved resolutions decrying the default and levying a series of record-setting fines. RCN responded to all of the above by filing for bankruptcy, thus avoiding the worst of the fines for the time being.

But the hole in RCN's wallet meant that CAN TV would likely find itself without expected funds and would be forced to lay off staff and cut back services unless a way to raise the necessary cash could be found,and quickly. Then, Chicago Alderman Bernard Stone entered the fray. On May 5, Stone proposed an ordinance before the Chicago City Council that would award 20 percent of the city's cable franchise fee -- more than $2 million -- to CAN TV to help fill the RCN gap. The ordinance wound its way through the Garden of Forking Paths that comprises Chicago politics. It faced the City's Committee on Finance, winning unanimous approval on June 18. The hope was that the ordinance could come to a City Council vote within a week. But the ordinance was delayed until the fall for the purpose of exploring alternate funding possibilities.

No other possibilities were forthcoming. But there was strong support for the ordinance in City Council, and an ordinance vote was scheduled for September 1. Still, two events brought choppy waters to smooth sailing. First, two Aldermen (Ed Burke and William Beavers) torpedoed the vote with a procedure called "Delay and Publish," which delayed the ordinance one final time. Then, Mayor Daley came out publicly against the ordinance; most of the time, his word means life or death to any possible ordinances. But Stone didn't give up on this ordinance and neither did the community.The hard work paid off, as both Alderman Stone and Mayor Daley brought a variant of the ordinance to the September 29 Chicago City Council. This new ordinance would provide 5 percent of the city's cable franchise fee to CAN TV and is expected to be approved this month.

This ordinance serves to stave off the imme- diate funding problems, but other long-term problems remain. For one, RCN (ever the deadbeat) owes about $1.3 million in assorted debts to CAN TV. For another, there are key issues to wrestle with about how CAN TV is currently funded. The funding structure assumes a competitive cable market in Chicago, but the Chicago cable market is headed in a monopoly direction. The Stone/Daley ordinance helps for the time being, but additional efforts will likely be needed, lest the RCN debacle recur. Stay tuned, true believers.

For additional information or to learn how you can help, contact CAN TV at 312/738-1400 or visit cantv.org.

Is the Chicago Cable Commission snubbing the public?

In less positive news, we go to the Chicago Cable Commission, the city-appointed body for handling matters involving the city's cable TV system. The commission holds monthly meetings in the basement of the Harold Washington Library Center in downtown Chicago. In January 2004, I attended a commission meeting the day after RCN defaulted on its CAN TV payment. Despite arriving at the meeting 20 minutes late and with a packed house, I got the chance to address the commission in person and speak my mind to my full satisfaction. But not anymore.If you wish to address the commission personally, and you aren't an employee of one of the major Chicago cable providers, you must:

A. Submit your comments in writing before the meeting begins.
B. Restrict your testimony to a maximum of two minutes (unless the Commission chair says otherwise, at his or her discretion, under no specified rules for outlining discretion).

What's more, a comment can still be ignored if the chair thinks that they are redundant or irrelevant. No guidelines are given as to what qualifies as "redundant" or "irrelevant."

In the August 2004 commission meeting I attended, I heard Commissioner Avis Lavelle state the rationale for the rule change as being "reasons of efficiency and beyond." She specifically indicated that when five or 10 or 15 people want to testify, it can cause meetings to be overly long and inefficient.

This might have been a reasonable argument when the RCN debacle erupted, when you had not just 15 but hundreds of people delivering similar comments ("Save CAN TV"). But under most circumstances, very few people come to these meetings, and fewer still testify. And it's not the same story being told each time, even if the moral of each story is the same. One just might learn something by listening; I certainly did, by listening to comments from teachers, attorneys, area filmmakers, and fellow activists. Why restrict comment, particularly for those who have to take time off from work (since meetings are usually held on Tuesday mornings) to attend?

At the August 2004 meeting, there was one gentleman in attendance who eager to address the commission -- with what, I do not know. I didn't hear what he had to say, because the commission didn't allow him to speak under these new rules, and he wasn't aware that he had to deliver a request to speak in advance. Moreover, because public comment is relegated to the end of the meeting, he had to sit through the entire meeting before finding out he would not be permitted to speak.

By the way, I had written in a comment of my own to the commission shortly after the hearing. The cable commission didn't read it and responded publicly by saying they had not received any formal request for public comment.

At best, this might be seen as an overly strict response to an extraordinary series of circumstances. At worst, it could be interpreted as discriminatory to people who wish to testify but are housebound and can't attend, and is especially burdensome to people who have poor language or writing skills. Such a response certainly seems counter to the duties set out for this commission by the city's Cable Ordinance, which includes resolving problems brought to it by the public.

If you wish to contact the cable commission on this issue (and it might be wise to do so before your cable goes down or starts behaving funny), you can contact them at 312/744-4052 or e-mail at cable@cityofchicago.org.

UPDATE I spoke with Jim McVane, the Deputy Commissioner at the Department of Consumer Services. It turns out that my comments weren't snubbed, just delayed from reaching the cable commissioners due to some organizational restructuring. Mr. McVane also described the aforementioned meeting changes as guidelines to help ensure smoother proceedings at commission meetings. I agreed that smoother proceedings were worth pursuing, but expressed my concern that the guideline might be regimented into a rule that might exclude legitimate public grievances. Mr.McVane said that he saw no evidence of the likelihood of that happening. I responded by saying that I hoped he was right,but I would err on the side of caution until I can see evidence otherwise. Time will tell.