East Chicago move may stifle public access cable TV dissent

Posted by Mitchell - July 16, 2004 (entry 211)

July 15, 2004

By Steve Walsh / Post-Tribune staff writer

EAST CHICAGO -- It could be lights out for some of the city administration's toughest critics as the city gets ready to pull the plug on public-access television.

The City Council this week adopted a new agreement with Comcast Cable that will dump the public access in favor of a new municipal-access channel run by city hall. The agreement was part of a renegotiation of East Chicago's agreement with its only cable provider, said attorney J. Justin Murphy, who negotiated the deal for the city.

The government channel will get the bandwidth that was being used by public access, Murphy said.

Comcast Cable runs public-assess programs for its customers in East Chicago and Hammond from its studio in Hammond. On Saturday nights, beginning at 5 p.m., Channel 16 is home to a series of shows such as The Truth, Streetwise and Citizens In Action where hosts and their guests detail the seamy underbelly of Lake County politics.

On recent programs of The Truth, hosts took calls as they thumbed through East Chicago city and school budgets. They pointed out overpaid and underworked administrators and often-absent Park Department workers in a city known as a haven of patronage, said Alicia Lopez-Rodriguez, a host.

"We openly talk about all the indicted city councilmen. Were not just trying to be controversial, but we don't back the administration, and we definitely want new leadership," Lopez-Rodriguez said.

Lopez-Rodriguez, who is outraged by the prospect of the public access shows being shut down, said one councilman told her that they would find a home for the shows on the new channel run by the administration.

That will not be the case, Murphy said.

If the city allowed The Truthto go on the new station, East Chicago would have to allow anyone including religious programs and the Ku Klux Klan cable time if they requested it, Murphy said.

You cant do it. Its against the law. Youre talking about separation of church and state, here,he said.

Murphy insists the city isnt trying to shut down the opposition and that shows such as The Truthcan get on cable by paying a license agreement.

"We are not saying they can't get on TV," he said.

Cable television is required to provide leased access to public groups that are not selling a product. A half hour of leased time costs less than $100, said Debra Piscola, director of government affairs for Comcast.

Piscola could not guarantee leased access programs the consistent channel or the 5 p.m. Saturday time slot The Truthnow enjoys.

Lopez-Rodriguez said if public access shuts down, The Truthwill be forced off the air and one of the only opposition voices in the city will disappear.

"Its like the city opened a newspaper and then passed an ordinance saying no other newspaper is allowed in East Chicago," she said.

Prior to 1984, the cable companies covered the cost of public access. Under current law the communities pay that cost from their franchise fee. In East Chicago, the franchise fee will increase from 4 percent to 5 percent which means an additional 44 cents on the bill of a cable customer with expanded basic, she said.

Public access cost about $150,000 a year in East Chicago. Murphy did not have a figure for how much the new government-sponsored channel will cost, though under the agreement Comcast will donate equipment and run new cable.

The new TV studio is the first office slated for the shuttered former police station on Railroad Avenue. Though the administration has vowed to slash jobs in the face of skyrocketing property taxes, the plan is to re-open the building for additional office space.

The city hasn't worked out who will move to the newly reopened building, but the possibilities include the city engineering and building departments. "The moves would free up room for a potential expansion of the City Council chambers", said Myrna Maldonado, the city's public information officer and director of the new municipal cable channel.

Mayor Robert Pastrick has not signed the new agreement with Comcast. "The mayor is expected to ask the City Council for an amendment that may address some of the concerns of The Truthand other public-access groups," Maldonado said.

Murphy said he has worked on the deal since November and has discussed the draft agreement with the mayors office.

If the agreement goes through, Comcast has 180 days to lay the cable to the new studio. The new station and municipal access could begin operating soon afterward.

Even if The Truth goes dark in East Chicago it would remain on in Hammond, but Hammonds agreement with Comcast is set to expire in September. Hammond officials have not said where they stand on public access, Piscola said.

Reporter Steve Walsh can be reached at 648-3120 or swalsh@post-trib.com

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