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City, Comcast differ on access channels.

Renegotiating of Cable Franchise Could Set Direction

NEARLY 15 YEARS HAVE passed since Little Rock got its first public access channels, but the city's cable television coordinator says the community has yet to fully capitalize on using them.

"Access just hasn't caught on in Little Rock like it has in other cities," Coordinator Vince Bailey says.

On the other end of the spectrum, Comcast Cable Communications Inc. General Manager Mike Wilson says: "Compared to what cities?"

"You run into problems when comparing cable systems because no two are identical," Wilson says. "I think our public access channels are fulfilling the community's needs."

Bailey and Wilson agree that Little Rock's access channels provide the city with a variety of programming. Little Rock has six access channels: a government channel, a general public channel, a channel for the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, a Little Rock School District channel, the Black Access channel and a channel for local religious programming.

However, where they differ is how the community has reacted to fully utilizing them, which Bailey hopes will change.

Bailey says Comcast's franchise, to be renegotiated and finalized in February, is just the vehicle to give public access that needed turnaround. The franchise outlines the guidelines that govern the access channels.

"We can push for the expansion of all of the access channels as the franchise is renegotiated," he says. "I don't know that we will see that happen, but it's my job to try."

Bailey oversees the city's government access channel, which is operating on a $70,000 annual budget. The channel recently produced a program documenting a day at work with some city garbage collectors. There were even programs produced for the Pulaski County Jail on how to book prisoners and prisoner orientation.

"There was once a time when government access did meetings and that was it," Bailey says.

"Vince has done a marvelous job with the government access, there's no doubt about it," Wilson says. "The feedback that we get is people are watching the programming, which tells me that it is working."

Assessing Access

With the right negotiations, by next year some of Little Rock's access channels could see larger budgets, upgraded equipment and additional staff. However, the city has not yet asked for any upgrades.

"We're not ready to surface our wish list at this point," says Brenda Donald, assistant city manager. "But there is certainly a lot more we could do with them, especially in regards to the information super highway."

Donald acknowledges that in many ways Little Rock's access channels are not as progressive or as fully utilized as they are in other cities. That is why most recently Little Rock has looked at how other cable franchises have maintained their public channels before making recommendations to Comcast.

Just three weeks ago the Little Rock Board of Directors held its first public hearing on the franchise renewal. From all indications, she says, the public seems willing to foot the bill for an overall improved cable system, including upgrades to public access.

The city has a good working relationship with Comcast, she says, which has kept the lines of communication open for suggestions.

"They may not give us everything on the list," she says, "but there is always room for negotiations."

She says the city is most interested in establishing an access agreement that doesn't have "restrictive framework." A city model that did catch the eye of Little Rock was that of Fayetteville.

Fayetteville's public and government access channels work in the same facility and even share some of the same equipment. Though the two entities function separately, sharing their resources has allowed funding for other ventures.

Public Access: Public Information

* In 1980 Comcast, then Storer Cable Co., donated much of the camera and video equipment that the access channels are using today.

* Comcast only funds the public access and black access channels. Other sources pay for the budgets of the other channels.

* Comcast pays a 5 percent franchise fee to the city of Little Rock. If a customer has a cable bill of $30, $1.50 of that goes to the city of Little Rock.

* By the end of 1994, it is estimated that Comcast will have paid about $700,000 in franchise fees. Last year the company paid $400,000.
COPYRIGHT 1994 Journal Publishing, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1994 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:includes related article; Little Rock, Arkansas; Comcast Cable Communications Inc.
Author:Hunter, Kris
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Aug 1, 1994
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