Tales of the Sausage Factory

MA Elects Public Access Programmer To U.S. Senate

Never underestimate the power of local media, although I can’t really say if this made a difference. But Senator-elect Scott Brown (R-MA) has his own public access cable show he uses to keep in touch with his constituents.

It shall be interesting to see if this has any impact on his approach to cable issues, although I suspect he is unlikely to get on a committee where this would matter.

Somewhat more seriously, it underscores the importance of staying in touch with your constituents, and the importance of PEG regardless of political allegiance. Brown won, among other reasons, because he actually went out and campaigned. This also wasn’t some clever act of pretending to stay in touch with constituents. Looking at his record here, he has been doing local cable show for years, and doing local events.

If one truth is emerging from the spate of special elections from NY-29 to last night’s MA race, it is that politicians cannot phone in their campaigns and expect the party affiliation (either their own or their opponent’s) to carry the day. Ya gotta work it. So the next time local cable access programmer asks for an interview, don’t snort “Wayne’s World, right” and blow them off. Take a lesson from Scott Brown — commitment to local media matters.

Stay tuned . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Comcast Celebrates Martin's Departure By Pulling Leased Access Channel.

I just got an email from the folks at Family-Life TV, a leased access channel on a bunch of Comcast systems in Pennsylvania, that Comcast just decided to drop their programming. Comcast claims Family-Life TV is in arears and owes 3 months worth of payments. David Croyle, who runs Family Life TV, tells me he has canceled checks to show he paid.

All I can say is “wow, that sure didn’t take long.” I wonder what other celebrations the cable boys have planned. Roasting a PEG programmer on a spit? Killing PEG in Los Angeles? Or perhaps just the ever popular “rate increase because we feel like it.”

I remain hopeful that the cable reform agenda will not die with Martin’s departure. At the least, it would be nice to see that the FCC will entertain complaints from leased access programmers when they get kicked off the air. Hopefully, it will take less than 3 years to resolve the complaint.

Stay tuned . . . .

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My Thoughts Exactly

Rat Brains Redux!

From an article in New Scientist entitled, I fecal matter you not, “Rise of the rat-brained robots”:

. . . the disembodied neurons are communicating, sending electrical signals to one another just as they do in a living creature. We know this because the network of neurons is connected at the base of the pot to 80 electrodes, and the voltages sparked by the neurons are displayed on a computer screen.

Normally this kind of story is the province of furtive Wetmachiner Gary Gray, but Gary hasn’t posted anything here since his wedding day some months ago. Which could mean anything, just say’n. In the meantime I’ll do my best to assume his wetmachine slack. I’m proud to say I was his Best Man, and the attendant responsibilities last a lifetime, what-what?

And furthermore, long dormant wetmechanics have been known to pop up and chirp, after a long sojourn underground, just like N-year locusts. With Greg resurgent, can Gary be far behind? Or David? Or, yegods, Peg or Christian? My advice? Stay tuned. Rat brains in jars controlling machinery have prortent! I swear I believe it!

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Sixth Circuit Upholds FCC on LFA Limits: A Bad Decision and A Sad Day for Localism, With Possible Silver Lining for Ancillary Authority and Leased Access.

The Sixth Circuit has denied the Petitions for Review filed by local franchise authorities (LFAs) and PEG programmers challenging the FCC’s December 2006 Order limiting the ability of LFA’s to negotiate with telco video overbuilders. (You can read a copy of the decision here.)

I am rather disappointed with the decision, as readers might imagine. Not only do I think limiting the authority of LFA’s to protect their residents is a phenomenally bad idea, I think the court takes a very expansive view of FCC authority over LFAs given the legislative history and the statute in question.

On the other hand, the decision potentially provides a substantial boost both the FCC’s ancillary authority and to its leased access reform order, currently pending before the Sixth Circuit. While I find this rather cold and uncertain comfort at the moment, it’s the best I can do in the face of what has become an utter rout for LFAs and PEG programmers. God willing, a future FCC will conduct the inquiry into strengthening PEG programming Commissioners Adelstein and Copps have repeatedly urged.

Some further analysis of the decision and what it might mean below…

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Follow Up On MI PEG Lawsuit

So the judge heard the motion for a restraining order by Dearborn and Meridian to keep Comcast from migrating PEG channels to digital. The court issued the restraining order, finding that the towns were more likely than not to prevail on several of their issues, that Comcast would suffer no harm from the delay, but that the cities would potentially suffer irreparable harm if Comcast migrated the PEG channels to where most citizens couldn’t see them. (You can find the opinion, the pleadings, and other useful information here.)

On the question of the definition of “basic tier” I raised in yesterday’s post, the court found:

1) Nothing requires a cable operator to offer the basic package as all digital or all analog, so it is more likely than not that Comcast can migrate PEG to digital while keeping broadcast channels analog.

2) However, cable operators must offer the basic tier on equal terms. Requiring rental of additional equipment to get part of the basic tier therefore is more likely than not a violation of law.

A preliminary restraining order is not a final judgment. The court must make a determination on what arguments are “likely to prevail.” But the court may rule otherwise once the questions are fully briefed and argued. Hence, the “more likely than not” language.

But the courts findings produce some oddball results. By implication, at least so far, the court accepts that the obligation to offer a “basic tier” persists even after the FCC finds “effective competition.” But despite what I would think is fairly straightforward legislative language and strong legislative language, the court thinks it more likely than not that cable operators can treat the elements of the basic package in a different way from each other.

I expect fights over the basic package and the meaning of Section 623(b)(8) to become much more common, as cable operators try to migrate more popular programming to digital and look to stop carrying analog after the digital transition. For me, the real question is: “Will the FCC weigh in?” If so, when, and how? Under NCTA v. Brand X (yes, that Brand X), the FCC can weigh in at any time, since a decision by a court deciding the issue does not alter the deference due to the agency. So there’s no rush for the FCC to assert jurisdiction on its own. Cable operators are rather unlikely to rush in and ask the FCC to start a rulemaking to preempt the states on this issue. So will someone else go to the FCC and ask them to resolve the issue? PEG supporters or local governments would be a logical choice, but they don’t exactly have warm fuzzy feelings about this FCC Chairman given his willingness to preempt local franchise authorities to the detriment of PEG and local consumer protection. Especially given the outcome in Michigan (which buys time) and the possibility of Congressional help, I expect the PEG folks to wait and see what the new FCC looks like before going to the FCC.

Broadcasters might also look to get the FCC involved early, rather than wait for a situation to develop. But that seems unlikely. Still, if folks at PBS or folks representing the independent affiliates get spooked, or if problems develop in the field, we may see the broadcasters come in.

Finally, the FCC itself could wake up and notice the issue. But that also strikes me as unlikely.

Stay tuned . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Potentially Much More At Stake In Michigan Than PEG — NAB, PBS and Folks Worried About Bundling of Services Better Wake Up And Pay Attention!

Compared to the primary battles in Michigan, the fight between Comcast and local governments about Comcast’s decision to migrate Public Educational and Government (PEG) channels to digital seems like small potatoes. But potentially, the lawsuit filed by the cities of Dearborn and Meridian in local federal court could have huge impact on how cable operators carry broadcast television and even how they bundle video services with their voice and broadband offerings.

For those just tuning in: Comcast has decided take advantage of Michigan’s franchise reform law and forcibly migrate PEG channels to digital tier, which will require anyone who wants to see PEG channels to get a digital box and will put the PEG channels waaaay up the dial where channel surfers rarely tread. This has prompted angry protests by city officials, and even a reprimand from House Commerce Chair Rep. John Dingell (D-MI). While other cable operators have used such tactics in the past, Comcast appears to be the first operator to do this for an entire state at once.

As a result, Dearborn and Meridian challenged Comcast’s right to move the PEG channels without consent by the localities in federal court. But while this focus remains on PEG, it goes much further. In 1992, Congress mandated that cable operators must offer subscribers a “basic tier” that consists of the broadcast channels and PEG channels. Congress also prevented cable operators from bundling this “basic tier” with any other service or “buy through.”

For reasons having to do with the Telecommunications Act of 1996, cable operators may no longer need to offer a “basic tier.” But if that’s true, what does that mean for broadcasters? Can cable operators forcibly migrate broadcast channels in the same way they claim they can forcibly migrate PEG? And — looking ahead — does that mean that cable operators will have the freedom to change how they bundle packages? Right now, cable operators generally offer their basic video product and then offer all manner of additional services. But what happens if the “basic tier” requirement is really dead? Will we see cable operators get more aggressive, forcing customers to take additional services if they want video programming?

From where I sit (which is really just looking at the plain language of the statutes), it’s a real muddle. I’m glad I’m not litigating. But if I were the NAB and PBS, I’d start paying real close attention here. Otherwise, they may wake up and discover that they are also going on a forced march migration to digital, even if they can keep their channel position and not end up in the 900s.

Analysis below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Raising the Profile on Franchising and Public Access Cable

The good folks at Saveaccess.org are trying to push members of the House Commerce Committee to press Martin on his order preempting local franchising authorities. You can read about Saveaccess.org’s campaign here.

Public access is one of these very useful things that people take for granted, until its gone. I may not want to watch my local city council or local educational programming that often. But when I want it, I really appreciate it being there. Nothing on cable can replace PEG for local programming or “local C-Span” like coverage. We need to push hard to save it.

Stay tuned . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Quick tag to Ensign Bill

For those who care about public access (or PEG channels). The bill keeps these (up to four channels, rather than a broadband set aside as some folks have negotiated for), and tells the state authority to delegate some local government entity to have authority to ask for the channels (you only get ’em if your local government asks for ’em). The bill also keeps a franchise fee of up to 5%, but the fee must be cost based rather than negotiate (i.e., the local government has to show how much it spends on digging up the streets and associated public rights of way issues).

Jim Baller, all around smart guy and lawyer extrodinaire for municipalities and municipal networks, has his take on the anti-muni provision of the Ensign Bill here.

Stay tuned . . .

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My Thoughts Exactly

Crass Commercial Anouncement

Crass Commercial Announcement

The bill for Wetmachine’s hosting is coming due pretty soon. Sure would be nice to sell a few books to help pay the freight! Why not take this opportunity to buy one!

The wonderfulness of same is attested to not only by me, but by the following reputable(!?!?) sources:

Acts of the Apostles:

Salon

Slashdot

Kuro5hin

Geek.com

SFSite

BioInformatics.org

Newstrolls

and many more about which Google can inform you.

Cheap Complex Devices:

Slashdot

Kuro5hin

And Google. . .

Don’t forget that you can try before you buy. The complete sources of both books are available for free download — gust glance to the left side, under “read my books” and follow the links. The all important “buy my books” section is just below that.

Wetmachine will resume its regularly scheduled programming as soon as Harold or Gary or Peg or Howard or Bremser gets around to posting something to push this story down the page.

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My Thoughts Exactly

Well, hello everybody

I spend a lot of time reading weblogs.

I read TalkingPointsMemo and a dozen other lefty news blogs. I read about Bush and I read about Iraq. And I worry myself sick because just about everything I read tends to confirm my sense that (in the immortal words of an R. Crumb character that I’ll track down one of these days) “the whole fucking planet is turning to shit.” But I enjoy those blogs because they have personality.

Over the last few weeks I’ve checked wetmachine a few times just to see what was up, and nothing much was. And I remember thinking: Damn, what’s up with this site? Why is it so dull? Where is wetmachine’s personality?

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