Some public, education and government (PEG) broadcasters allege cable providers are treating PEG channels as second-class broadcasters by carrying PEG channels in ways that impede viewer accessibility to them in violation of federal law and regulations.
PEG advocacy groups—including the Alliance for Community Media (ACM)—and local cable franchise authorities claim that AT&T’s U-verse service, which bundles television, Internet and telephone, provides “PEG programming in an inferior and discriminatory fashion that does not meet the requirements of local franchise agreements.” As a result, they have petitioned the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to rule that PEG channels must be carried on the basic service tier and be treated equally with other basic service channels, a petition the FCC has not acted on.
Federal law does not mandate cable companies provide PEG channels, but the Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984 (P.L. 98-549) allows local cable franchise authorities to require cable operators to set aside channels for PEG use.
However, during the past few years 20 states have passed laws allowing cable systems to go from local franchises to statewide franchises. Some of those laws have abrogated, or phased out, the PEG-related provisions in local franchise agreements requiring cable providers to set aside channels, provide financial support, and/or studio facilities to PEG broadcasters.
Further, it seems cable providers do not want to tie up their broadcast streams with what is deemed as less popular programming, including PEG channels, so some companies are providing PEG channels only on digital tiers that require subscribers with an analog televisions to have a settop box with digital-to-analog converter for reception. Some cable operators are providing the boxes free, while others are charging for the devices PEG advocates say that is inconsistent with the terms of local franchise agreements and the Communications Act. Specifically, the ACM says such an approach is “systematic discrimination against PEG programming in terms of accessibility, functionality and signal quality.” Not to mention it reduces avenues for citizens’ oversight of local government.
In addition, the FCC has adopted rules that might limit the amount of financial support for PEG cannels the local franchise authorities can require of cable companies.
So is the FCC allowing cable companies to treat PEG channels like unwanted stepchildren? The current situation seems to support that belief, but if the accusation is justified remains to be seen. However, the FCC can take a step toward eliminating that perception if it would rule on the petition that AT&T’s U-verse service is offering PEG programming in an inferior and discriminatory fashion. The commission might still rule in AT&T’s favor, but no one can say it did not act.