Comcast Undermining PEG in Vermont

With its most recent demonstration of “Comcastic” behavior, the cable giant is competing for yet another medal in the Sneaky Olympics. So in addition to having paid people to fill the seats at public FCC hearings on the future of the Internet last year, Comcast can now add slanted polling practices to its record.

Last week, Comcast put its employees to work phoning Vermont residents to ask them leading questions about their interactions with community television: Do they know one of the channels has a 25 percent surplus, and how much would they be willing to pay to support public access TV?

What’s behind Comcast’s phone-a-thon? Certainly not a civic-minded desire to work with community television providers and producers to create a better public TV. Had that been its motive, Comcast would have actually contacted at least one of the community television stations before dialing.

In fact, the data Comcast is collecting could help the company in its case to pull the plug on at least one PEG station, which it’s been attempting to do for months.

Vermont boasts some of the highest quality community television programming in the country – with groups like Chittenden County’s Regional Education Technology Network (RETN) and Burlington’s CCTV and the Center for Media and Democracy. RETN and CCTV rely on funds from cable providers like Comcast to supply educational programming to schools and run community media centers.

Community television channels (often referred to as PEG – short for public access, educational and governmental television) are one of the greatest independent media victories of the late-twentieth century. The way it works is simple: If a company wants to come in to your community and lay down wires for video service, like cable, they need to pony up some space for public access to the network. In exchange for letting them dig up your streets, you get a channel (or three) on the dial where you can put your own show.

But the channels are only part of the deal. Subscribers also pay a small franchise fee ($4.71 per month), which gets passed on to the organizations that providers like Comcast contract with to run the channels. That doesn’t add up to a lot of money for these facilities – especially in comparison with the $2.5 billion profit Comcast made in the last year.

However, the cable giant objects to funding certain equipment investments – especially those that help bring programming to new audiences on the Web. But innovative programming for online audiences is exactly what PEG stations need in order to grow in the 21st century. By trying to force PEG stations to focus exclusively on cable broadcast, service providers like Comcast are constricting PEG’s growth.

Now is precisely the time to grow viewership, not to restrict it to a single medium. And as the debate over how these funds are spent heats up in Vermont, Comcast’s characterization of its polling as an assessment of “the public access-related needs of the communities we serve in Vermont” is all too transparent.

So if you happen to get a call from Comcast asking you about public access TV, try asking them to call your local public access center if they want to understand the role these facilities play in Vermont communities. Or better yet, tell them that you’re pulling for them to beat AIG in The Consumerist’s “worst company in America” award.