Community Cable Controversy
Access, providers, programming to be decided
Rick Metz, from uPublic Studios, said about a week ago someone shut the power off to the studio, then stripped all the copper wiring and tubing from the building’s electric transformer. And it didn’t sound like it was the first time. “It’s a constant battle,” Metz said. “People go up and down the alley, turn off the electricity and steal the wire.” Metz said he hopes the city, who owns the property, will have it fixed so he can get the stations back up and running by the time this issue of Weekly Alibi is on the stands.
In addition to having to deal firsthand with Albuquerque’s crime problem, things have been rocky for Albuquerque’s community cable channels for more than a few years. Until July 2012 and for 30 years prior, Quote Unquote, Inc. was the operator of 2 of the 4 Public, Education and Governmental access channels. They received about $270,000 a year to produce local content for channels 26 and 27. Throughout the three decades, a wide variety of community generated shows aired on those two community channels.
In Nov. 2011, Mayor Richard Berry’s administration issued a request for proposals and then awarded a five-year, approximately $335,000 annual contract to uPublic Studios to operate channels 26, 27; a couple years later channel 96 was added to the mix. Rumors swirled that Metz and his company had no experience operating community cable channels and it was a political award to a friend of the administration who would “clean up” the channels’ content.
Such shows included two longtime Quote…Unquote locally produced shows: the one with the naked man—Don Schrader—who drank his own urine and the program made by pro-marijuana folks. Both generated controversy among more conservative citizens and members of the Berry administration. Quote…Unquote administrators like Steve Ranieri say these shows demonstrated the true meaning of the First Amendment and the wide berth that should be allowed in community produced television.
In late July 2012, just days before Quote…Unquote’s contract was set to expire, armed security guards blocked access to the building prior to uPublic taking over. A lawsuit was filed by Quote…Unquote seeking an injunction to stop the change, which was denied by a state district judge, and uPublic officially became the city’s community cable operator. The lawsuit is not over according to court records. Steve Ranieri, executive director of Quote…Unquote said the case is still open and has a Sept. 2018 court hearing date.
Of course, much controversy followed as all the established shows had to reapply for production under the new uPublic operation, which mostly aired non-locally produced shows that were light in any political content. Since the change, many people have shown up to city council meetings to question uPublic’s presence and the city’s expenditures of the cable franchise monies.
In July 2016, uPublic was put on notice that it was in non-compliance of its contract for not providing the required amount of locally generated shows and content. At that point, uPublic brought in local ProView Networks to air high school sports and related sporting events. Meanwhile, uPublic’s contract was extended for six months while a new request for a proposal is being drafted. This issue will fall into the lap of the new mayor. It is not known how long Mayor-Elect Tim Keller’s administration will take to review the request, and all the related issues regarding local cable programming in Albuquerque.
The city gets its money to operate the four Public, Education and Governmental (PEG) channels with money from Comcast, as part of its franchise agreement with the city. The current 15-year contract with Comcast expired a month or so ago but was extended for 6 months while the city completes negotiations. Under the current terms, Comcast pays the city $.44 cents per cable customer per quarter, thereby generating an amount in the millions that fluctuates due to consumer subscription trends. In addition to these big bucks, Comcast also gives the city access to four channels—channel 16 or GOV-TV, which the city operates, and channels 26, 27 and 96, which uPUBLIC is under contract to operate.
Assistant City Attorney Jane Yee, who handles cable franchise issues for the Berry administration, said she could not comment on any of the terms in the negotiations or when the new community cable provider request will be issued. Not all the money collected through the cable franchise agreement goes to the community cable channels. The bulk of the money from the contract, is held in an account to be used for various cable, internet, and broadband infrastructure maintenance in city school and government buildings.
To oversee the cable franchise negotiations and the money collected, the city has a three-person cable and franchise hearing board that, among other things, hears complaints against Comcast. For the last couple of years, there have not been consistent regular meetings, or new appointments to the board. But for the last few months, the board has met to discuss various issues, due to the contract negotiations. There is still currently one vacancy on the board.
Weekly Alibi asked for figures reflecting the total amount of money collected through this franchise agreement and how much is in the PEG account. As of press time the city had not gotten back with those figures.
In Weekly Alibi’s conversation with uPublic’s Metz, he wanted to talk about his company’s community cable track record after five years. He said he may have been full of new ideas at the beginning, but now he has the experience to back them up. He said uPublic has subsidized the three public channels to the tune of about $300,000 a year. He said his company has improved them greatly to where they are now a powerful force for the community. He said about 90% of former Quote…Unquote producers inquired about continuing with uPublic. He did not say how many successfully renewed their shows on uPublic. He touted the most recognized show a “The Morning Brew,” which he says last year gave 700 local guests an opportunity to have their time in front of the camera and express their views, without committing to a appearing in reoccurring shows.
Weekly Alibi asked about what is next for the Comcast contract, the new request for a community cable operator and when the request for proposals will be issued. With one administration heading out the door and a new administration scheduled to take charge on Friday, Dec. 1, it is not known at this point what changes the new administration may want to make to implement.
Both Metz for UPublic and Ranieri for Quote…Unquote said they have heard that the new request for proposals may have a provision whereby the channels split up for use by more than one operator. Both also say their respective companies are ready to bid on one or all the channels, once the city issues the new request for proposals.