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Local matters

Sat, 12/31/2005 - 7:00pm
Thomas G. Robinson, Executive Vice President, CBG Communications Inc.

That old saying, "All politics is local," continues to ring true as witnessed in last November's off-year elections, and is sure to be reinforced as we move to the potentially momentous Congressional election of 2006. In fact, many things and the way that we respond to them are rooted squarely in our local interests. Over the years, I have found that the use of communications media for any given individual is largely driven by their local interests. For example, this is why business travelers located 3,000 miles away from their home base will bring up their home news station's Web site to see what is happening in the world, rather than watch the news from the city they have traveled to. This is also why another business traveler will set their recording device to capture a high school basketball game cablecast by their local community access or local origination channel, in order to watch it when they return (or if it is available by video stream, they will try and catch it at their remote location).

Thomas G. Robinson
A significant amount of truly local content on cable systems has been generated due to a focus on localism instilled by the local franchising process. At its heart, this is why the current push for statewide or even nationwide franchising in the name of fostering competition is seriously misguided, if it hopes to somehow provide a process that better serves the consumer.

It is important to understand that broadcast and cable-based media had their roots as very locally focused services. For example, the original cable telecommunications systems were CATV, or Community Antenna Television systems. They initially brought in the closest broadcast stations, at least providing a degree of localism with stations that covered news, public affairs and community events in a regional fashion. Then, because of the need to establish more direct locally responsive content, the first local origination and community access operations sprang up. In the early '70s, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) actually worked to foster these emerging services and likened them as ancillary to requirements for broadcast television stations to serve the local community.

These early efforts have blossomed into literally thousands of local government, educational and public/community access operations, as well as operator-sponsored local origination channels, that have produced award-winning content of both targeted and broader local interest, including such programming as:

  • High school, college, minor league and amateur sporting events that cover a wide range of interests from football and baseball to lacrosse and motor sports.
  • Heightened involvement in the governmental process—Even with C-SPAN and statewide governmental affairs networks, the amalgam of local government access channels covers the local government process in a significant level of detail for hundreds of cities that far surpasses the level of coverage of the state and national governmental process. Research indicates that the level of citizen awareness of local issues and of how individual elected officials are reacting and responding to those issues, has increased many fold since the days when the only way to observe the process was to attend the meetings in person.
  • In-depth coverage of community events—From fairs to parades to community forums to commemorative and memorial activities, the ability for any individual to understand, become aware, observe and become involved in literally any community issue is right at their fingertips, if they have access to cable and Internet services as these are currently configured. This is especially true for second and third tier suburban as well as rural communities. Such jurisdictions are many times left out of broadcast media coverage, which tends to focus on the core metropolitan areas that they serve, but not by their access or local origination channels whose mission it is to focus on the very local community.
  • Learning about and participating in the creation of media content—Prior to the development of access channels, unless you were enrolled in an academic program that ultimately allowed you to work for one of the media outlets, such as broadcast television, you had no chance to develop electronic media content that expressed your views and your ideas. That opportunity now presents itself to literally everyone in a local franchise area where community and public access channels are active and supported, largely by the local franchising process.

It is notable that cable telecommunications companies have a significant involvement in the community in another way. For example, operators are involved in local initiatives such as literacy campaigns, where they provide at reduced or no cost broadband services and multimedia access to community centers, schools and other locations where these services help bridge the digital divide. Contrast this with the local involvement record of national services such as direct broadcast satellite, which first fought and then were incredibly slow to implement public affairs capacity, and then only for services with a national footprint.

Some will say that such localism doesn't matter, because people just want the lowest cost of access to national services to obtain their favorite programming, regardless of where they live. When you talk to consumers, though, and find out how they choose specific content in an ever-growing deluge of media, you find out that such a perspective is simply not correct. People's viewing habits are still rooted in what matters to them locally.

We all will probably agree that the current local franchising process could use some streamlining. However, what the federal government is trying to do is akin to fixing nail pops with a sledge hammer. All they'll do is fill the wall full of holes, which certainly will not be to the benefit of the consumer. If left unchecked, they will turn a local success story into a national nightmare.

Have a comment? Contact Tom by e-mail at: robinson@cbgcommunications.com

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