Charles Uphoff is worried about what the Video Competition Act will do to Madison's local cable channels ' WYOU and City Channel 12 ' should it pass the state Legislature.
'This bill, as presently written, would be disastrous,' says Uphoff, WYOU's executive director.
AB-207, sponsored by Rep. Phil Montgomery (R-Ashwaubenon), would let cable companies establish a single statewide franchise, instead of negotiating individual deals with municipalities. Montgomery's chief of staff, Adam Raschka, blames the local franchises for scaring away other cable providers, like AT&T, that want to enter the market. 'We've had local franchises, and for 30 years there hasn't been any competition,' he says.
But Brad Clark, manager of Madison City Channel 12, says cable companies sign local franchises because they run cable lines on public property: 'The 5% franchise fee that Charter Communications pays the city of Madison is basically rent for the private use of public property.'
In 2006, Charter paid the city $1.9 million in franchise fees. Most went into Madison's general fund, though about $250,000 was earmarked for City Channel 12. Montgomery's bill, Clark estimates, would shrink the franchise fees cable companies pay by about 15% to 25%.
'That's half a million dollars in lost revenue,' he says. 'It's a hit for the city.'
Raschka says the franchise fee won't be reduced because it's based on the companies' gross revenues, which will go up as new subscribers sign on, lured by having a choice between providers. He feels cities are now using these fees inappropriately.
'They use it to pay for playground equipment,' he says. 'It should be used for video services. It's not meant to augment the general fund.'
The bill also eliminates cable customers' access fees, currently 62 cents per subscriber per month. Last year, this raised about $390,000. City Channel gets two-thirds, with the rest going to WYOU and the mayor's office. Raschka says cable companies simply pass the monthly access fees on. 'It's not the companies paying this, it's the consumers,' he says, calling it another 'tax' on residents.
Another provision in the bill, warns Uphoff, could kill WYOU. The bill requires public access stations to air at least 12 hours of content a day, with 80% of its programming produced locally and not repeated.
'There's not a commercial or private channel anywhere in the county that would meet that 80% standard,' says Uphoff. 'I don't think most people have a clue how much time is involved in actually creating a program.' He notes that WYOU's volunteer staff recently spent 1,000 hours to create 148 hours of programming.
Raschka says this requirement seeks to ensure that public access channels are not wasted space. Otherwise, 'that's valuable real estate. If it's not being utilized, maybe it could be ESPN or something.'
But Uphoff says Montgomery's bill helps giant telecoms like AT&T, at the expense of local stations. WYOU and City Channel 12 are 'valuable when you see so much of the media being controlled by a dwindling number of corporations,' says Uphoff. 'Public access stations are the last holdout for truly independent media.'
Montgomery's bill is meant to help AT&T enter the cable TV market in Wisconsin. And the company's employees have greased the skids with campaign contributions. From 1998 to 2005, Rep. Montgomery got just $300 from AT&T's political action committees, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. In 2006, when Montgomery was drafting the Video Competition Act, he received $2,250 in donations from the company's PACs and individual employees.
Not a shakeup
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Despite 14 Madison Common Council races and nine open seats, Tuesday's election changed little. All incumbents were re-elected, even those facing tough challenges.
'I thought I was gonna lose,' admits Ald. Robbie Webber. She went to her election night party at the Laurel Tavern 'prepared for the worst,' but handily defeated Troy Thiel.
Progressive Dane lost only one of its seven seats ' Ald. Austin King's district went for Eli Judge, not Lauren Woods. All the other candidates endorsed by retiring alders won, including the night's biggest surprise: Thuy Pham-Remmele beating former Ald. Gary Poulson in Dist. 20. Pham-Remmele was supported by Ald. Cindy Thomas, who campaigned tirelessly for her. Pham-Remmele's win shocked some of the council's liberal members.
'I have no idea what happened,' says Julia Kerr, who was elected in Dist. 13. 'Gary would have been a huge asset to the council.'
Although there will be nine freshman council members, Susan Schmitz of Downtown Madison Inc. doesn't expect much upheaval. Many of them, she notes, already serve on city committees: 'I think they're going to do pretty well, pretty quickly.'
At last week's city council meeting, retiring Ald. Ken Golden got a standing ovation. Among other things, Golden is known for his sense of humor.
During his 18-year reign, Golden introduced resolutions praising the Dixie Chicks (when they were panned for criticizing President Bush) and asking to rename Madison's lakes the 'Great Lakes.' Last week, the council appointed Golden 'Ambassador to Pluto,' for offering a resolution that recognized Pluto's dignity as a planet, after astronomers stripped it of this title.
'Please keep doing this kind of stuff,' Golden implored the council.
He blames much of the council's recent strife on its humorless partisanship. 'My recollection when I was a rookie was that you could go to any alder and potentially convince them to change their vote, if you had a good argument,' he says. 'Now, people walk in with their votes already committed. If I had one wish, I would get party politics out of the council.'
In fact, Golden says he may join Progressive Dane to 'get them to back off from having an agenda for the council. I think it's unhealthy.'
Golden will likely stay on as a citizen member of the city's Plan Commission and its Transit and Parking Commission. And he'll remain on the Allied Area Task Force until the city finishes a plan for nine apartment buildings it bought there last year. Allied, says Golden, 'just consumes you.'
What advice does Golden have for the new council? 'Have fun. Keep humor in the job.' He pauses. 'And understand what's going on.'
Four Dane County Board supervisors are challenging District Attorney Brian Blanchard's decision to press felony charges against a man who passed a joint during a pro-pot rally last fall. In a letter to Blanchard (see this story at TheDailyPage.com), Supvs. Ashok Kumar, Al Matano, Kyle Richmond and Barb Vedder call the charges 'overly punitive' for a 'victimless crime.' They add: 'Our budgets are stretched thin, and yet your office is prioritizing a questionable use of resources for a questionable prosecution.'
Kumar thinks the charges should be dropped: 'Nonviolent drug offenders should not be charged with a felony.'
Blanchard is not surprised by the letter, saying these supervisors have raised concerns about drug law enforcement 'fairly regularly' in the past. 'I am always respectful of their right to share their views,' he says.