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Thursday, Dec. 3, 2009 06:42 am

Comcast may cede public access channel to city

Producers unhappy with deal

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Darrel Moore

As Comcast seeks to cut ties with public access television across the nation, the City of Springfield prepares to take the reigns locally, angering producers who say they were not consulted on the deal.

Cable company Comcast announced in late November that it would stop providing management services for Access 4 public television channel, telling station employees not to report for work after Dec. 4.

Comcast already had a contract with the city to provide a public access channel, but they are not required to provide equipment, studio space or management services. Up until now, Comcast has provided those things “out of the goodness of their hearts,” station employee and producer Darrel Moore says wryly.

The city council is scheduled to consider on Dec. 8 an amendment to the contract that allows the city to assume management of the station. The move will not cost the city anything, since it will only provide scheduling capabilities and a place for Access 4 producers to plug in their shows, according to city spokesman Ernie Slotagg.  Under the agreement, Comcast will continue to provide funding for equipment.

“That really is the fundamental requirement of our franchise agreement,” said Rich Ruggiero, spokesman for Comcast. “We’ve had a long-standing commitment to deliver the programming, and we’re pleased with the agreement because it will ensure that customers can continue to continue watching it into the future.”

In a press release last week, Springfield mayor Tim Davlin highlighted the importance of public access as an outlet for free speech.

“This electronic digital soapbox is a microcosm of our community and needs to be preserved,” Davlin said. “I am pleased that we have been able to offer to manage Access 4 so that these expressions of citizen journalism can continue to be viewed by the citizens of Springfield.”

But Darrel Moore says the deal was made without input from public access employees or producers. Moore has hosted his own show, “Poop-TV Presents,” on Access 4 for five years and has managed the station for the past three years.

“They completely did an end-run around us and didn’t even ask one of us anything,” Moore says, adding the city could control content by mandating that shows be in certain cost-prohibitive formats.

“Once the city gets in charge of it, they have all the power,” he says. “They can make it practically impossible for us to get stuff on the air.”

Moore is also concerned that the equipment funding provided by Comcast will not be used properly when put under city control.

“You know once that money goes to the city, it’s gone,” Moore says. “It won’t be used for funding Access 4. It will go into funding salaries and stuff like that … There’s just not enough information to go on right now, and it sure has upset all of the producers.”

Public access channels are under siege on multiple fronts. (See “Fringe Voices” by Dusty Rhodes, Dec.10, 2008.) States like Illinois have passed laws allowing telephone companies that expand into cable to bypass requirements for public access channels, pushing cable companies to drop support as a way to cut costs and stay competitive. Other markets have seen multiple public access channels compressed into one, lowering the quality to that of online streaming video.

Moore says the best-case scenario would see the channel staying in its current studio, with the producers forming a nonprofit group to run the station. Instead, Moore fears the station’s future is in jeopardy.

“Giving just part of the station to a third party is what’s causing the problem,” Moore says. “It needs to be all kept together.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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