Cable-Ready or Not

Giuliani and the City Council Fight for Control Over Franchises

In a vote last Wednesday, the city renewed its franchises with Time Warner to provide cable television in Manhattan, Queens, Staten Island, and western Brooklyn—without the input of the City Council, which filed a lawsuit a day earlier seeking a say in the 10-year, multibillion-dollar deals. The Giuliani-dominated Franchise and Concession Review Committee (FCRC) signed the agreements immediately after a state court ruled that the panel could proceed. Meanwhile, a judge will consider the council's claim: that the city has broken state law by refusing to allow it to vote on the franchises.

Council members vow that they will press on with their suit, and on Thursday a majority of them approved a resolution that will prevent the city from renewing an expiring deal with its other franchise, Cablevision, without the council's involvement. "We're closest to community concerns, and we hear them," says Bronx council member June Eisland. "We particularly want to make sure that the public access organizations are given the tools they need."

Before the city's charter was revamped in 1989, cable franchises were approved by the Board of Estimate, an arrangement plagued by corruption. But the new charter was vague in specifying who would inherit that responsibility, and council members argue that state Public Service Commission regulations—which say that all cable franchises must be approved by the "local legislative body"—make it clear that the City Council must have a decisive role in the process. The city maintains that by granting the FCRC the authority to review cable franchises in the first place, the council has already had its say.

The lawsuit is just the council's latest counterassault on what it sees as Mayor Giuliani's aggressive appropriation of powers. Just last month, Council Speaker Peter Vallone sued the city, contending that the mayor's City Charter Revision Commission was deliberately formed to prevent council-sponsored referendums on campaign finance reform and the fate of Yankee Stadium from getting onto the November ballot (while denying accusations that he wants to ride city voter turnout into the governor's office).

But as with the previous incidents—which have also included a lawsuit blocking privatization of public hospitals and the council's promise to sue if the mayor intervenes in city spending—serious public interests underly the political rancor. The council is proposing to overhaul how the city runs Crosswalks, its five municipal channels. Crosswalks carries City Council meetings, CUNY programming, a community services bulletin board, and job postings read surreally by on-air personalities. But it also carries Off-Track Betting races on two channels, the Nashville Network on some, and produces little programming to help viewers better understand the city or its government. Crosswalks also runs advertiser-supported news, sports, and movie programming in Italian, Japanese, and Cantonese, leaving out vast immigrant constituencies.

"The use of the municipal channels has been terribly spotty," contends Council member Walter McCaffrey of Queens. "Instead of horse races from around the country every afternoon, the channels could have homework help for latchkey kids or help for immigrant populations where parents don't have facilities. Those are just some of the possibilities." The council is calling for something many other cities already have: a nonprofit corporation—representing the mayor, council, and comptroller—that would run Crosswalks. It is also seeking to turn a new public channel into an education resource and wants to hold the city accountable for how it uses its institutional cable network, which provides two-way video links between government buildings. And the council wants to have a majority role in overseeing the nonprofits that run public access in each borough, fiefdoms the borough presidents closely guard.

The new franchises raise other issues that the council would do well to consider. There's public access funding, which was increased enough to keep it alive—the Manhattan Neighborhood Network will receive $5 for each of 502,000 subscribers a year, plus a $2.4 million grant after five years—but that still leaves New York less equipped than most other cities to deal with demand for facilities and training; some access organizations lost a bid for listings in program guides. And while other franchises around the country have been requiring their cable companies to provide new technologies, the New York agreements were left intentionally vague, calling for a capacity sufficient for services like high-speed cable modems but pledging nothing specific. Nor did the city require Time Warner to provide cable Internet service to schools and libraries, another now common demand.

The agreements also assure many benefits for cable subscribers, notably stringent customer service rules and technical specs that promise high-quality signals on hundreds of channels. The city hopes to secure those in the Cablevision deals as well, but the Long Island-based sports-and-media company, which reportedly tried to acquire the Yankees, has given Brooklyn and the Bronx special cause for concern. Following years of delays, Cablevision didn't finish wiring those boroughs until 1995, and earlier this year was ordered to reimburse over $2 million to customers for overcharges and to lower its basic rates (the company denies any wrongdoing). The council's new guidelines will now apply to the Cablevision franchise, and since they call for citywide action, the future of both companies' agreements is unclear. As one council adviser dryly notes, "The possibility for chaos exists."

 
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