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Comcast franchise may be win for city, but there’s one loser

Philadelphia used to be the biggest city in the country without a public-access TV channel until activists won a 27-year battle to launch PhillyCAM. Now, under the proposed Comcast franchise deal, PhillyCAM is looking at budget cuts. Is it a sign of the times?

Gretjen Clausing, executive director of PhillyCAM, after the second City Council hearing on the Comcast franchise. (Photo by Juliana Reyes)
Full disclosure: Comcast was the title sponsor of Philly Tech Week 2015, which was organized by's events team.
The road to public-access television in Philadelphia has not been a smooth one. Gretjen Clausing knows this.

Now the executive director of public-access nonprofit PhillyCAM, she was one of the leaders of the 80-group coalition that waged a 27-year fight to get community media on cable TV in Philadelphia. Philadelphia was the biggest city in the country without a public-access TV channel before PhillyCAM launched in 2009.

But now, with the city’s proposed 15-year contract with Comcast, PhillyCAM is facing another blow: a 12 percent cut to its annual funding from Comcast. The contract, which has been in negotiations since early 2015, is slated to be approved by Council Thursday. It’s largely being championed as a win for the city, as it drastically expands internet access for low-income Philadelphians.

OK, wait. Before you stop reading because you’re not sure why should care about public-access TV, here’s what’s at stake:

PhillyCAM’s roots may be in public-access TV but its work goes beyond that. The group offers media training and access to video cameras, editing software and other equipment to their 750 dues-paying members (49 percent of which are African American, according to PhillyCAM). It’s part of PhillyCAM’s mission to empower Philadelphians to tell their own stories.

As one PhillyCAM member put it during a Comcast franchise meeting: “There are so many people in our neighborhoods whose voice is not really heard, and it’s not really understood and it’s not really even documented.”

A sign of the times?

The current franchise deal is a look at how Comcast’s role in Philadelphia has evolved over the years: in the last franchise negotiation, the issue of funding for public-access TV was front and center, but this time around, advocates, along with the city, pushed for a whole slate of programs, only one of which was funding for public-access TV.

The tradeoff between public-access TV funding and expanding internet access feels like a sign of the times.
These days, internet access and equity are the priority — not TV. It’s something Comcast knows all too well.

Kati Sipp (left, in red) of Pennsylvania Working Families and a PhillyCAM staffer (center) testify before Council about the Comcast franchise.

Kati Sipp (left, in red) of Pennsylvania Working Families and a PhillyCAM staffer (center) testify before Council about the Comcast franchise. (Photo by Juliana Reyes)

PhillyCAM’s Clausing herself calls the franchise deal a “very positive outcome for the city.” But she admits that she’s disappointed.

The budget cut means PhillyCAM won’t be able to expand its after-school program or open satellite sites in other parts of the city, where it hoped to train more low-income and immigrant communities to create media. Creating media, remember, is about having a public voice.

“Why, in [Comcast’s] hometown, are we not able to have a public-access TV station that is the most well supported in the country?” Clausing testified before City Council last week.

She pointed to Comcast’s recent 10-year franchise deal in St. Paul, Minn., a city of 300,000, where Comcast agreed to pay roughly $1 million annually to the city’s public-access and educational channels — a figure confirmed by Chad Johnston of the St. Paul Neighborhood Network.

Under the proposed Philadelphia deal, Comcast agreed to pay $21.3 million over 15 years to the city’s public, educational and governmental (PEG) channels. PhillyCAM will receive just under half of that figure, bringing its Comcast funding to $733,000 per year. (It’s important to note that that number isn’t entirely decided by Comcast — the city decides how much of that total $21.3 million goes to PhillyCAM. The rest goes to channels run by the School District and city government. Clausing said she’s hopeful that PhillyCAM can get a larger piece of that $21.3 million.)

Still, Philadelphia, a city of 1.5 million, is slated to get less PEG funding per capita than St. Paul. It’s something that Mike Wassenaar questions.

“Are you telling me that the people in St. Paul deserve more access, more education, more representation than the people in Philadelphia do?” said Wassenaar, president of the Alliance for Community Media, an advocacy group for PEG channels. “I’d make the case that a city like Philadelphia has a need for more education and more diversity [in media]. There’s something wrong if there’s less investment in a city like Philadelphia.”

Comcast declined to share numbers on its PEG funding in other cities where a franchise agreement is in place.

Comcast spokeswoman Jennifer Bilotta said the new Philadelphia contract was “a rich franchise agreement that provides considerable funding for PEG programming.”

A shifting landscape

The recent franchise negotiations also raise a larger question: Are cable franchising revenues a sustainable funding model for PhillyCAM? (PhillyCAM also started getting funding from Verizon’s franchise deal in 2014.)

Public-access channels across the country have been grappling with this question, Wassenaar said. Cable franchising revenues are the dominant source of funding for most U.S. public access channels, he said, though some have been working to diversify revenue, through grants and individual donations. But recurring cable franchising revenues have a scale that can’t be beat, he said.

At a PhillyCAM taping at Independence National Park.

At a PhillyCAM taping at Independence National Park. (Photo via Facebook)

Still, finding other funding sources is a way to ensure that public access channels like PhillyCAM will exist even if cable franchising changes.

“If cable franchising changes, does that mean that an organization like PhillyCAM suddenly goes poof?” Wassenaar, of the Alliance for Community Media, asked. “Does it mean that the need for the education work that they do, the need for media diversity disappears?”

Clausing knows this, too.

“We can’t rely entirely on cable money for our economic future,” she said.

PhillyCAM, which has an annual operating budget of $1.25 million, also gets funding from organizations like the Philadelphia Cultural Fund, PA Council on the Arts, the Wyncote Foundation and the Barra Foundation, plus revenue from workshop and member fees. PhillyCAM’s fundraising goal for the upcoming fiscal year is $80,000.

Not mad

And yet, even though she’s disappointed, Clausing applauds the city for its handling of the franchise negotiation process this time around.

“This is incredibly heartening, knowing what this process was like 15 years ago,” she said to us after Council’s second Comcast hearing last week.

She’s talking about the enormous focus on public input (the city held several public forums during the negotiation process), the city’s investment in hiring a consulting firm to create a “needs assessment,” and the Nutter administration’s transparency during the process. She said the city’s Law Department and Office of Innovation and Technology, whose chief Adel Ebeid led the negotiations, were as transparent as they could be with a contract that was between Comcast and the city.

“I’ve been given the opportunity to participate as a true stakeholder,” Clausing said.

And on the funding note, she’s hopeful that, even if the current Comcast contract gets approved, PhillyCAM might be able to get a bigger piece of the $21.3 million that Comcast is investing in PEG channels.

She did, after all, fight for 27 years to get a public access channel. She knows the drill.

Companies: Comcast / PhillyCAM
People: Gretjen Clausing

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