Haven’t We Seen This Show Before?

06Mar09

I won’t say that last week’s public hearing on RCN’s request for a renewal of its cable license in Wakefield, Massachusetts brought back fond memories. There were, however, occasional moments of déjà vu that reminded me how little some things change.
RCN's Thomas Steel
If I closed my eyes and listened to RCN Vice President Thomas Steel explaining to the selectmen why it’s taken ten years to wire certain public buildings, I could almost feel myself being transported back to 1985, listening to Warner Amex executive Nick Leuci stumbling through some convoluted explanation as to why the company outfitted the original Water Street cable studio with inferior equipment compared to what they promised in order to secure the first cable license in Wakefield.

“Technically, you can do anything you want if you spend enough money,” was Steel’s classic response to Selectman John Carney’s point that the emergency override system, as presently configured, is essentially useless to the town.

I’m reminded of an expression that my father often used to describe the phenomenon where different individuals tend to offer the same predictable, stock answers in almost the same words.

“Those guys went to the same school,” he’d say. He wasn’t referring to Boston College.

It was good to see at last week’s public hearing that there is some understanding among the selectmen that a cable license renewal application represents their best chance to get something back from the cable company, even if it’s only compliance with the terms of the original cable license.

But this type of scrutiny shouldn’t happen only when a cable license comes up for renewal or transfer. There ought to be a watchdog keeping an eye on these companies on an ongoing basis.

Back in the 1980s, when I was involved with local cable programming, there was a Cable Committee that met twice a month. Granted, cable TV was new back then, and there was a lot that municipalities had to sort out.

Occasionally, the old Cable Committee saw a need to haul the local Warner Cable executives before them to discuss some non-compliance issue or contract violation. Those sessions may not have always had the desired effect of correcting the problem, but at least the company suits knew that someone was paying attention, and at minimum it forced them to come to Wakefield after business hours and pay lip service to the issue at hand.

As came to light at last week’s RCN hearing, Wakefield doesn’t currently have a Cable Committee – not one that has actually met in the last year, at least. It’s been suggested that there really haven’t been any matters for a Cable Committee to deal with. But, based on issues that surfaced at the RCN hearing, that thinking may be changing.

In the 1980s, with just one cable company to deal with, there were enough issues to warrant twice monthly meetings of the Cable Committee. In 2009, with three cable companies in Wakefield – Comcast, RCN and Verizon – surely there is enough material to warrant a Cable Committee meeting every other month or quarterly at least.

As Carney suggested at last week’s hearing, there needs to be a new, more active Cable Advisory Committee that is distinct from the WCAT Board of Directors. A Cable Committee could receive feedback from local cable consumers, keep track of non-compliance issues, look out for the town’s cable interests and advise the selectmen periodically.

Another idea was put forth at last week’s public hearing: that some day local WCAT programming could be available for free over the Internet. Anytime, anywhere in the world, people could watch WCAT programs on their PCs or laptops.

Upon hearing that suggestion, one local viewer quipped, “Oh, good. Now I’ll be able to sit on a beach in Bali and watch reruns of the Fourth of July Parade.”

[This column originally appeared in the March 5, 2009 Wakefield Daily Item.]

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