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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  • Greg Dewar

    Mirkarimi’s legislation is well intentioned – however it’s way way too late to be of any use.

    This whole situation was an example of the ugliness of telecoms, the pay-to-play politics of Fabian Nunez, and the fact that no major newspapers gave this issue much attention years ago when the legislation was being crafted.

    It started when AT&T wanted to offer television service on their new fiber optic service (the same service installing those fridge-sized boxes in your neighborhood you can’t stop). AT&T didn’t want to play by the rules cable tv had to (i.e. get a franchise from local gov’t, each with various requirements to serve the public in exchange for exclusivity). They wanted a statewide franchise.

    Naturally, the cable industry didn’t like this too much. Not only were they getting competition, but ones that didn’t play by the rules. So they put up a fuss. Fabian Nunez, the former Speaker of the Assembly (a man so in the pocket of AT&T he skipped the CDP convention in 2006 to play golf with AT&T elsewhere) eventually gave Comcast/other cable companies a statewide franchise as well, killing local agreements once and for all.

    It might have been helpful had the Board at the time said something to our local legislators, but we had silliness to engage in. It might also have been nice if our local legislators had listened first to the people and secondly to AT&T, but hey, there was money to be raised. Besides the issue was so arcane and complex, no one was organizing mass protests to defend what many argue is a luxury anyway.

    All the while, the public is going to end up with higher rates and lousier service and no real competition for your TV/Internet/Etc. dollars. Lesson learned? Sometimes issues that aren’t as easy to understand, or as ‘cool’ are the ones that kick your ass if you aren’t careful. Oh, and the lack of coverage of Sacarmento by the mainstream media=double fail.

  • Greg Dewar

    Mirkarimi’s legislation is well intentioned – however it’s way way too late to be of any use.

    This whole situation was an example of the ugliness of telecoms, the pay-to-play politics of Fabian Nunez, and the fact that no major newspapers gave this issue much attention years ago when the legislation was being crafted.

    It started when AT&T wanted to offer television service on their new fiber optic service (the same service installing those fridge-sized boxes in your neighborhood you can’t stop). AT&T didn’t want to play by the rules cable tv had to (i.e. get a franchise from local gov’t, each with various requirements to serve the public in exchange for exclusivity). They wanted a statewide franchise.

    Naturally, the cable industry didn’t like this too much. Not only were they getting competition, but ones that didn’t play by the rules. So they put up a fuss. Fabian Nunez, the former Speaker of the Assembly (a man so in the pocket of AT&T he skipped the CDP convention in 2006 to play golf with AT&T elsewhere) eventually gave Comcast/other cable companies a statewide franchise as well, killing local agreements once and for all.

    It might have been helpful had the Board at the time said something to our local legislators, but we had silliness to engage in. It might also have been nice if our local legislators had listened first to the people and secondly to AT&T, but hey, there was money to be raised. Besides the issue was so arcane and complex, no one was organizing mass protests to defend what many argue is a luxury anyway.

    All the while, the public is going to end up with higher rates and lousier service and no real competition for your TV/Internet/Etc. dollars. Lesson learned? Sometimes issues that aren’t as easy to understand, or as ‘cool’ are the ones that kick your ass if you aren’t careful. Oh, and the lack of coverage of Sacarmento by the mainstream media=double fail.

  • Matt Baume

    I’m not totally clear on why we need a public access station. I mean, it’s nice to have and all, but so would a pony farm.

  • Matt Baume

    I’m not totally clear on why we need a public access station. I mean, it’s nice to have and all, but so would a pony farm.

  • Greg Dewar

    @matt : true, but the basis of all of this is that cable companies (pre Bad Bill) were given a charter to do cable television in a jurisdiction, provided that they allocate some resources to serve the public in exchange for this arrangement (coverage of city hall meetings, public access etc).

    Thanks to the Democrats in the legislature, we got a really Bad Bill that nuked all of that, and did so for the benefit of AT&T, who will not do a thing to serve the public with public access on their fiber system etc. Instead they’ll just populate the street with huge fridge-sized utility boxes.

    Best thing to do? Ditch cable and satellite, get an Internet Only connection and pay NO TAXES on the line!

  • Greg Dewar

    @matt : true, but the basis of all of this is that cable companies (pre Bad Bill) were given a charter to do cable television in a jurisdiction, provided that they allocate some resources to serve the public in exchange for this arrangement (coverage of city hall meetings, public access etc).

    Thanks to the Democrats in the legislature, we got a really Bad Bill that nuked all of that, and did so for the benefit of AT&T, who will not do a thing to serve the public with public access on their fiber system etc. Instead they’ll just populate the street with huge fridge-sized utility boxes.

    Best thing to do? Ditch cable and satellite, get an Internet Only connection and pay NO TAXES on the line!