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Thirty years ago, Minnesota was immersed in what was then called the cable wars.
Before cable television came along – and most people born after 1980 barely remember this – all television programming was limited to whatever your feeble antennas, be they the old rabbit ears on top of your television sets or a rooftop structure, pulled in a very few available number of channels for family viewing. The Twin Cities had four VHF outlets and a couple of UHF stations. The cable wars descended on all urban centers mostly during 1978 and 1979, and the Twin Cities was as hot a market as it got for helping to select a cable company to haul in more than 50 or 60 channels at the time – many more came later – a money-making machine for the selected company, if ever there was one.
Much of the history of this episodic adventure is detailed on Andy’s blog at TruthToTell.org/Blog, so we won’t wax on about that here – but needless to say, it was a political and financial brouhaha the likes of which had probably never been seen in these parts before. Politicians and city fathers and well-heeled business people were in the thick of the money and influence-peddling to win the heady competition for those exclusive franchises to wire the cities and suburbs for the multitude of services we now take for granted – like HBO, Showtime, CNN, C-SPAN, ESPN, Fox Cable and MSNBC, the History Channel, the Discovery Channel and everything in between and beyond.
Along with all those commercial channels cable companies offered were a half-dozen or so channels devoted to public, educational and government use – PEG services or channels. They were given over to communities after local activists and nonprofits raised hell about the license to print money this new technology would bring to the winning cable corporations. Elected officials, courted and cajoled by untold numbers of contributors and business types, as well, rose to the hue and cry and, with the help of city franchise consultants, extracted promises of money, equipment and channels to use for bringing otherwise unheard community voices into homes and institutions throughout a given city service area.
But cable companies agreed to what they viewed as blackmail through gritted teeth and promised the moon to each franchise authority – that is, a city or group of cities, usually councils or groups of elected officials – in return for the nod to put up their lucrative cable systems.
Thus were created public cable access authorities of several varieties, some independent, some controlled by city cable regulators, some by city councils, aided by a now-defunct state cable communications commission organized to prescribe the way franchise agreements could be drawn, including the provision of cable access services.
But real cable access often means the airing of free-speech programs that may well criticize those same local authorities. even as those same authorities now broadcast their hearings meetings live over their very own government channels. Discontented citizens get a chance to shoot and air their own shows, some of which make the public and councilors cringe. In Minneapolis, where the cable access corporation is controlled almost directly by the City Council, despite having its own board of directors, some cable programs have gone for the official jugular on a fairly regular basis – rankling those same elected officials and rattling the cages of other city officials.
Not for the first time, but perhaps not so violently, the Minneapolis Mayor’s Budget, and some on the City Council, seem hell-bent on slicing and dicing the city’s own cable access group – the Minneapolis Telecommunications Network, or MTN. Recent articles in the local papers and online peg (pardon the pun) the recommended cut at $250,000, no small chunk – 40%, to be sure – of MTN’s total budget of just over $700,000. Will the Minneapolis City Council restore the budget? And can MTN be put on a more independent footing, able to develop resources beyond the franchise and PEG fees now subject to the city’s largesse? What can YOU do about this? Listen in below.
TTT’s ANDY DRISCOLL and KATEY DeCELLE talk with several of those in charge of and affected by MTN’s operations as well as some comparing MTN to the St. Paul Neighborhood Network’s (SPNN) arrangement with that city and its Comcast company (also the Minneapolis supplier now).