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Thursday, Sept. 5, 2013

City Cable Channel Isn’t So Basic

State law could leave viewers in the dark

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WTMJ-4 is the current casualty in the dust-up between Journal Broadcast Group and Time Warner Cable.

But Milwaukee’s City Channel could be the next to go dark, thanks to a 2007 bill pushed by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), its corporate member AT&T, former Democratic Sen. Jeff Plale, now working for the Walker administration, and former Republican state Rep. Phil Montgomery, Walker’s appointee to head the Public Service Commission.

The Video Competition Act of 2007 took cable franchise agreements out of the hands of municipalities and gave them to the state. So when Time Warner warned its customers recently that 11 of its basic cable channels—including the City Channel—would no longer be included for free in its analog cable packages, it didn’t need to inform the Milwaukee City Council about that change. Time Warner will give a free digital to analog converter box to customers who request it by Nov. 11. But these customers will have to pay an extra $.99 for the formerly free service a year from now.

Alderman Jim Bohl criticized Time Warner’s bait-and-switch maneuver, which he says will cut off residents’ access to city government.

“This change would not have been looked at real happily by the council,” said Bohl. “I don’t think they ever would have done that if they were still accountable for their franchise agreement with the city of Milwaukee.”

He said the change would hit low-income and elderly cable customers the hardest, since they are more likely to have older TV sets and basic analog cable packages.

“These channels ought to be free and available to the public,” Bohl said.

According to the Center for Media and Democracy, the Wisconsin law is modeled on ALEC’s Cable and Video Competition Act, a model bill written by its corporate members for use in statehouses around the country. Supporters promised it would lead to more competition, better customer service and lower cable rates.

Bohl scoffed at those promises.

“I can only tell you it’s gotten worse,” he said.

Time Warner could not be reached for comment.