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Mayor seeks control over DCTV funds

(Published July 1, 2002)


Staff Writer

Earlier this year, when D.C. Councilman Vincent Orange was leading a closely watched council investigation of nonprofit fund-raising within the executive office of Mayor Anthony A. Williams, he noticed one local media outlet curiously silent about that hot topic of interest: Channel 16 – sometimes called "Mayor TV" – the cable channel designated for use by the city administration to communicate with D.C. residents.

Inspector General Charles Maddox "issued a 514-page report on a subject that occupied the press for weeks at a time," said Orange, D-Ward 5. "But on Reporters’ Roundtable on Channel 16, that subject just never came up."

So when supporters of DCTV, the District’s open-to-all public access television outlet, came to Orange earlier this month with the charge that the city’s Office of Cable Television and Telecommunications (OCTT) an arm of the mayor’s office that operates Channel 16 and makes telecommunications policy for the city – was trying to use proposed new cable TV legislation to gain powers over DCTV that could threaten its funding and operations, they found a sympathetic audience.

Orange soon drafted amendments to the cable legislation, which is pending before the city council, to block what both council and DCTV observers now say are terms in the proposed agreement that would transfer substantial power over DCTV’s funding and operations to OCTT.

"If you look at the programming decisions on the mayor’s channel, you can see that the independence needs to be there for public access television in the District," Orange said.

The council is expected to vote on those amendments this week before it decides whether to approve both a new franchise agreement with cable services provider Comcast and a new set of cable TV regulations for the District.

DCTV, as the nonprofit D.C. Public Access Corp. is best known, operates the District’s two public access cable TV channels, which are mandated to provide non-commercial programming and production training that is open to participation by all D.C. residents.

"Our concern is that the impact of these changes would effectively have us regulated by OCTT, and that office would make decisions about how we operate," said Kojo Nnamdi, chairman of DCTV’s board of directors.

Nnamdi described DCTV as an independent entity responsible to its membership in the city, not to a city agency.

"We think of ourselves as the free speech channels in the city," he said.

Cynthia Pols, executive director of the Institute for the Positive Use of Technology (InPUT), a nonprofit firm hired by the city last year to survey the District’s cable needs, was more blunt about the legislation drafted by the Williams administration.

"This is a power grab," she said.

"To try to change the law by franchise agreement is an attempt to go around the council," she said. "It’s not an honest decision-making process…I assume it’s a way of securing power."

According to Bunnie Riedel, executive director of the Alliance for Community Media, which promotes the interests of public access broadcasters, the main problem with the legislation is that it replaces the council as the final overseer of DCTV's board of directors with OCTT itself – an agency that’s part of the mayor’s office.

She said that Williams has generally been a friend of DCTV. "But the mayor has the strong arm. They’re in a position to deal with programming they don’t like, or perhaps to cut your funds if there’s a budget shortfall. You don’t want to live and die by one office," she said.

But Donald Fishman, OCTT’s general counsel and a chief drafter of the proposed bills, said DCTV’s fears are misplaced.

"We don’t want to dictate to anybody," he said.

He insisted that the new legislation would not transfer any governance powers over DCTV to his agency.

"OCTT is not the budget authority for the city; the council is," he said.

DCTV supporters say they believe they have enough votes on the council to get most of the changes they want.

"But council members don’t always do what they say they’re going to," said a DCTV observer.

DCTV’s programming – including such citizen-created productions as Slavery Is Not My Only Heritage, the Gay News Network and Islamic Perspectives – features shows of local interest that might not find a place on larger commercial channels.

According to DCTV board member Pedro Alfonso, DCTV’s production training mandate is also important.

"There’s always talk about the digital divide," he said. "Those who have access to a state-of-the-art facility, they also have access to the professional opportunities in the world of telecommunications."

The skirmish over funding and control has broken out now because DCTV’s channels – along with five other non-commercial PEG (public/educational/governmental) channels operated by the University of the District of Columbia, the D.C. public schools, the council and the mayor – are all funded through the city’s franchise agreement with its commercial cable TV providers, Comcast and Starpower.

The District’s previous cable TV contract, in force since 1985, expired last year but has been repeated extended during negotiations for a new contract. The proposed franchise agreement to be considered by the council this week would give Comcast a 10-year contract to provide cable services (including Internet and other future cable-delivered services) to the District.

It will also set the PEG channels’ level of funding and at least potentially could determine who gets the final say on how PEG funds are distributed to DCTV and the other PEG entities – and who gets how much money.

DCTV officials said that besides their general operational control concerns, they are also worried that the proposed legislation hands OCTT control of future funds for much-needed capital investments in facilities and equipment at DCTV.

Under the previous cable deal, DCTV and the other PEG channels were guaranteed only a proportional share of the 1 percent of the cable franchisee’s gross revenues that was earmarked for their operating expenses – but no money budgeted for investments in equipment and other major capital spending.

The result, said Pols, is that "DCTV has lousy equipment. They’re way behind their counterparts in Maryland and Virginia."

(The situation improved somewhat in April when, after securing a bank loan, DCTV moved into new facilities in historic Brooks Mansion in Brookland.)

The proposed new agreement negotiated by OCTT would add to the 1 percent for the PEG channels’ operating expenses a further 1 percent for capital improvements, finally giving DCTV and the other PEG channels a chance to bring their facilities up to the level of their peers in the region and nationwide and to offer better-produced programming competitive with that of commercial stations.

But, say DCTV and council sources, the new contract drafted by OCTT would guarantee a set share of the new capital improvement money to DCTV and the other PEG channels only for the contract’s first three years – and then allow OCTT to cut capital funding for the channels completely if it wished, with no oversight by the council, as had been the case with the previous contract.

"The current language gives OCTT complete discretion over how much capital funding" goes to DCTV and the other PEG channels, asserted Lisa Bolden, vice chairman of DCTV’s board.

"The effective language gives OCTT the power at a later date to change our funding and operations – even to unilaterally make changes in programming and other matters at their discretion," Alfonso said.

He said that possibility would throw roadblocks in the way of DCTV’s attempts to improve its facilities and equipment.

"As we try to plan out upgrades of equipment and other things, the possibility that OCTT might grab some of those capital improvement dollars for themselves…If that’s not intended, let’s clarify the language to make sure the public is protected," he said.

But Fishman said it is important to note that the 1 percent for capital improvements at the PEG channels is "extra money."

"It’s unfair to characterize this as taking away something," he said, if DCTV is not guaranteed a set share of the capital improvement funds.

"My boss" – Darryl Anderson, head of OCTT – "negotiated for this extra 1 percent for capital improvements," he said. "It’s not fair to him to say something is being taken away if a particular entity like DCTV doesn’t receive a guaranteed revenue stream from that."

He also said that a guaranteed share of the funds for one PEG entity, such as DCTV, might threaten funding for other new channels in the future, since under the new agreement the number of possible PEG channels will expand from six to 20.

"Guaranteed revenue streams are two-sided," he said. "If (DCTV) get their share guaranteed, that may take away from somebody who wants to establish a new entity in the future."

But Pols said the issue is OCTT’s willingness to allow both DCTV and the other non-governmental PEG channels autonomy over much-needed funds for upgrading their operations.

"For OCTT not to guarantee that money to exactly the folks who need to be compensated for the District’s long history of incompetence on capital investment is pretty outrageous," she said. "The 1 percent for capital expenditures is the bare minimum for (the PEG channels) do to catch-up."

"All of the PEG channels should have autonomy" over funding, she added.

Pols pointed out that because in the past DCTV and the other non-governmental PEG entities have lacked a guaranteed share of capital improvement funds, they have fallen farther and farther behind the facilities and equipment put together at Channel 16 – run by the OCTT – for use by the mayor’s administration.

"The mayor’s operation has bought themselves a lot of high-end, fancy stuff," Pols said. "OCTT can go out and spend a million dollars on a really state-of-the-art mobile van. Meanwhile, last year it was a big deal for UDC to scrape together $15,000 for a character generator" – the machine that places print graphics on TV programming.

On June 10, Timothy L. Jenkins, then interim president of UDC, sent a letter to Councilman Harold Brazil, who heads a council committee that has been examining the proposed cable legislation. Jenkins’ letter sought changes to the legislation that would guarantee UDC’s PEG channel greater autonomy from OCTT oversight.

"…(T)here is considerable room for mischief in the catch-all language of (one section of the proposed legislation) which allows the D.C. Cable Office to add ‘such terms and conditions or address other issues as OCTT deems appropriate,’" the letter reads.

"Clearly the breadth of this language would threaten the academic freedom of both UDC and (the D.C. public schools) in ways that could be unacceptable," the letter continues.

Other changes to the cable legislation sought by DCTV and put before the council by Orange include an attempt to get a guarantee for at least one more analog channel for DCTV among the anticipated new channels, rather than leaving that future assignment up to OCTT.

Both channels that DCTV operates now are analog, as opposed to digital. Analog channels are considered more valuable because digital channels aren’t carried as part of current cable TV programming packages.

Merritt Spiers, general manager of Fairfax Public Access TV in Fairfax County, said any shift to OCTT oversight would be out of step with industry norms.

"That’s very unusual," she said. "Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a public access facility that’s run by a government entity."

Spiers said Fairfax Public Access is overseen by an independent elected board. She noted that before taking her current job last year, she headed up the public access operation in Pittsburgh for 10 years. That facility, she said, was also headed by an independent board.

"Public access is freedom of speech in action," she said. "There are constant freedom of speech issues everyday."

She mentioned a program now run on Fairfax Public Access which has regularly featured fundamentalist Islamic speakers and which has recently become the target of complaints.

"What if (a government agency) made a decision not to let somebody say something?" she asked. "When government does that, it’s censorship. It’s pretty big stuff."

"I can’t say I agree with everything people say on our channel, but I completely support them having their say," she said.

Copyright 2002, The Common Denominator