One of the first items of business the City Council will take up in the New Year is whether to renew Comcast Cable’s franchise agreement with Jersey City. That this franchise agreement will be renewed is a given, since by law municipalities have practically no right to deny such agreements to companies that have built up the local cable infrastructure.
But the city can dictate the length of the agreement and can demand that Comcast improve the community services and programming it offers to Jersey City residents. Since March, the city has been receiving input from the public regarding what resources and services Comcast should be required to offer as part of its franchise renewal.
In a public hearing held Dec. 11, residents had one of their last opportunities to tell the council and Comcast which services should be tied to the city’s franchise agreement with the company.
The list of requirements includes continuation of Jersey City 1 TV and a dedicated public access channel; a station set aside for the Board of Education; discounted rates for senior citizens; a service suspension option for seasonal residents; equipment upgrades; improved training opportunities for lay producers; and scholarship, internship, and employment opportunities for Jersey City students.
Whether or not the city gets any or all of these “wish list” requests will depend on the state’s Board of Public Utilities.
In 1998, the city signed a 15-year local franchise agreement with Comcast to supply cable service to Jersey City residents. This agreement expires May 13, 2013.
As a first step in this process, the city held a public hearing at City Hall last Tuesday so residents could discuss their experiences with Comcast and which services they’d like to see from their local cable provider in the future.
Based on the comments made at the public hearing before the City Council, the city will renew its cable franchise agreement with Comcast – but is likely to include its wish list of desired services and resources in the agreement.
According to City Clerk Robert Byrne, there are only a limited number of circumstances that would allow the city to deny a franchise renewal to Comcast: if the company hasn’t complied with its 1998 agreement; if Comcast’s service is poor; if Comcast lacks the financial or legal capacity to deliver service in the future, or if the company is unable to meet the future needs of the community.
Thus, it is unlikely the city will cut ties with Comcast altogether. But the city can build a number of requirements into its contract with the company that address service problems and other concerns residents raised last week.
In a nutshell, many residents believe that Jersey City receives fewer services from Comcast than other communities receive from their local cable TV providers.
“In other cities, there’s actually money set aside for public access where there is a studio and people can receive training,” said resident and cable access producer Yvonne Balcer. “In Union City, you have a great [public access studio], where the public can receive training and there is available equipment. That’s not the case here. In Jersey City, the public has to bring a finished product to the public access station [Channel 51].”
Another resident, Mia Scanga, who produces the public access show “Talking Politics” for Channel 51, agreed.
“Some of us, like myself and Yvonne Balcer, we’ve gone out and purchased our own equipment,” Scanga noted. “But video cameras and other equipment can be $2,000 or $2,500. A lot of people can’t afford that. We are not getting nearly the services at our public access station that other cites get. That [public access] studio on Kennedy Boulevard has nothing in it. In other cities, not only do people get a studio, they get trained how to film, how to edit.”
Throughout the hearing, several community members stated that Comcast’s rates, even for the most basic packages, are not affordable for seniors living on fixed incomes. This, they argued, poses a problem should there be an emergency, since seniors without cable might miss important information that is broadcast on TV.
Others, including seasonal resident Jim Morley, complained that the city’s current agreement with Comcast does not allow customers to suspend their service during months of the year when they are living out-of-state. Local cable agreements in other cities allow for such service suspensions for “snow birds.”
Charles Smith, Comcast Cable’s director of government and community services, told The Reporter that that “these are things that can be discussed” when asked whether the company would be willing to improve resources for public access TV producers, and he said Comcast would be willing to entertain such improvements.
He added, however, that many of the public access studios mentioned by Scanga and Balcer are run by Cablevision, not Comcast.
Programming changes requested
One sticking point in the city’s new franchise agreement with Comcast could be whether the city is able to keep Channel 1, known as Jersey City 1 TV, a station dedicated to municipal government meetings and city news. City officials believe that Comcast may want to capture the channel for its own purposes.
Councilman Steven Fulop also told Smith that he wanted to see what improvements Comcast plans to make in its foreign-language programming.
“As you know, we are a very diverse city, with many residents who come from other parts of the world,” said Fulop. “I’d like to know what Comcast plans to do to increase its programming for the Indian community and Russian-speaking community.”
Shorter is better?
Some residents at the hearing suggested cutting ties with Comcast altogether, especially if the company appears unwilling to offer all the services the city is likely to request.
Byrne, however, said that completely severing ties with Comcast is not possible, since it is the company that built up Jersey City’s cable infrastructure and, as such, it has the permanent right to offer local cable service, unless the city can make a strong case against renewing the franchise agreement to the Board of Public Utilities. Still, he insisted the city has negotiating power and leverage.
“Comcast has to be reasonable,” explained Byrne. “The final arbiter in all this is the Board of Public Utilities. They are the mediator if one side or the other makes silly requests. If we’re not reasonable, the BPU is not going to approve our ordinance [to renew the franchise agreement with Comcast]. But at the same time, if Comcast denies all the things we’re asking for, the BPU will intervene on our behalf and require that Comcast negotiate.”
Smith said Comcast would favor a multi-year term for its new contract. Some council members indicated they may, however, choose a shorter-term contract to pressure the company to improve its services.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at email@example.com.