In an unprecedented move, the Cable Franchise and Hearing Board stepped into the fray over who will operate the city's public access TV channels. With a unanimous vote on Thursday, Jan. 5, the board backed Quote ... Unquote, Inc., the nonprofit that ran the channels for three decades before losing its contract.
In late October, officials showed up at QUQ headquarters to inventory equipment and deliver the news: an organization named uPUBLIC had been awarded the gig [“End Quote,” Nov. 3-9, 2011]. But QUQ Executive Director Steve Ranieri protested that the bidding process was weighted in uPUBLIC's favor and had been a "farce," with the outcome set from the beginning. QUQ's eviction was delayed until March 31 so the city could consider the issue. There’s no telling who will be awarded the contract.
Still, the cable board's unanimous recommendation caught him off guard: "We really didn't know this was going to happen."
Comcast pays the city 44 cents per customer each month in exchange for the right to lay cable line. Federal laws dictate that the cash go to public, educational or government stations. The cable board monitors that agreement, represents subscribers and advises the city.
But the board had no input into who would be awarded the contract to run public access channel 27 and Encantada channel 26. That's a violation, Ranieri says, of the ordinance that established the board in the first place. "That city ordinance has been around a long time, but it's been kind of dormant," he says. "This cable board decided they were going to intervene and take back their authority and make a recommendation."
Martin Ethridgehill, chairman of the board, says the three members are more active and vocal than others in the past. A representative should have had a seat on the committee that chose who would run the public access TV stations, he says.
The board made its recommendation after reviewing the top two applicants: QUQ and uPUBLIC. Board members were concerned uPUBLIC wouldn't have programming ready, Ethridgehill says, and that the channels would go dark at the end of the year when the company took over the station. "There were lots of questions for us and way too much to risk."
Rick Metz, project coordinator for uPUBLIC, disagrees. "We've been working with a lot of the producers that are airing on 26 and 27 now," he says. They would have had content ready, he adds.
Producers can choose to change nothing about their programs, he says, or they can ask for uPUBLIC's help in upping the production values. "Everyone is invited” to be on public access, he adds, and he welcomes applicants.
Metz says if the cable board took the responsibility of reviewing proposals seriously, it would have looked at all of them—not just those from QUQ and uPUBLIC. "I don't know how credible that process is. They took an hour and looked at 20 percent of the respondents."
The issue is in the City Council’s hands now. "We're just letting this play out,” Metz says. “We're spectators as much as anyone else."