Even the best intentions oft go a rye: some three years after he and his Assembly colleagues passed AB 2987, which passed oversight of television providers — i.e. Comcast, AT&T, and how they are funded — from local government to the state Public Utilities Commission, state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, is reaching for the rewind button.

In addition to shifting oversight from local to state, the Assembly bill also changed the way local access programming — so-called PEG (Public, Education and Government) programs — are funded, which has meant that local-access cable stations like San Francisco’s Access SF are now short hundreds of thousands of dollars on an annual budget of close to $850,000, cash they say they need to continue operating.
In a letter sent to Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi — who has made saving Access SF a pet issue, and has introduced legislation that would force television providers to pay more for PEG programs in exchange for the right to broadcast “King of Queens” reruns over the San Francisco ether — Leno states that “it was my understanding that… the act would not change the level of funding for public access programming (PEG) in the state.”

You can read Leno’s letter here.

(It’s also worth mentioning all of San Francisco’s state legislators voted for this bill — that is, everyone save then state Sens. Carol Midgen and Jackie Speier).

It’s admittedly a fringe issue without the front-page value of legalizing marijuana or a new strain of flu, but Leno’s remarks — in response to a query from Mirkarimi asking why Leno supported the bill — poses a few questions. Was he specifically misled, by bill sponsors or by AT&T, who lobbied on behalf of the bill? Was the bill merely poorly-written?

The Appeal phoned Leno’s Sacramento office for clarification, and will post an update once we hear back.

In the meantime, supervisors listened to several hours of public comment from the producers of such gems as “Bro Jud on Love Energy” and well-produced 9/11 conspiracy programs, all expounding upon the merits of such programming, and passed legislation on to the full board that would bump up Comcast’s contribution into the public TV pot by about $2 per subscriber per month.

The legislation should hit the full Board of Supervisors next week.

UPDATE — We just got off the phone with Leno, who told us there were “specifics in the bill” intended to preserve funding for public-access TV at pre-bill levels, and “not only were there specifics in the bill, there were reiterated assurances that the level of funding for public access would have a floor to it,” maintained at the pre-bill (2006) level of funding.
A quick review of the bill’s language would seem to support Leno’s interpretation: Section 5870 (n) of the bill states that fees can be imposed on the television providers to maintain 2006 levels of funding, and that local agencies — like the Board of Supervisors, say — can enact ordinances to fund PEG programming on top of the fees.
But that still doesn’t fully explain how, as Access SF supporters put it, over $100,000 in funding simply disappeared.
And it gets stickier: federal law might restrict money raised from cable-subscriber fees to paying for capital improvement costs, rather than operational costs for public-access programming.
The axe is due to fall on Access SF in June, but Leno said he’s heard reports of public-access TV studios in the Los Angeles area already shutting their doors.
He and his Sacramento colleagues are in talks with the chair of the state Public Utilities Commission “to see what can be done… but if there is the need to clarify, or remove any ambiguity of our intentions, I am prepared to do what’s necessary” to save public-access television.
If only we all had such friends, no?

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