As a board member of the Carroll County Community Media Center, I am grateful that public attention is finally being paid to the much-delayed cable franchise negotiations between Comcast, the county and its various municipalities. However the lack of transparency in this process remains of great concern to the CMC and its governing board, as does the likely end result of these negotiations.
We touch the lives of all county residents, not just those on Comcast cable. However, a sizeable majority is not familiar with who we are and what we do. Like the blind man with an elephant, people know small parts of our operation (the local History Project or our election forums) without realizing the full scope of our services.
As a 501c-3 non-profit Public, Education and Government (PEG) media organization, we operate a shared broadcast production facility on Washington Road in Westminster, coordinating five local cable television channels and an extensive online and social media presence for the benefit of all the citizens of Carroll County. For 25 years we've served county residents by giving them a voice, providing public and emergency announcements, local non-profit outreach, support for local businesses, archival services for local history, local event programming, (including coverage of municipal meetings and other government activities) and venues for political debate and community action. As an educational facility, we provide media classes, work force development and internships for youth from across the county.
The Media Center's funding comes from franchise fees, that small percentage of every cable subscriber's monthly bill which Comcast returns to the county and municipalities for the privilege of doing business in Carroll. The 2000 franchise agreement included an additional grant to set up and equip our Washington Road facility. This equipment is now completely out of date, and for the CMC to continue to provide the services that allow our citizens to have a voice and engage in the life of their community, the Media Center urgently needs a similar franchise grant to upgrade our facility to HD and equip us for the future.
While we made this need clear to the Cable Regulatory Commission two years ago, our fear is that it was never made a serious part of franchise negotiations. Our concern was reinforced when the Commission administrator downplayed the importance of HD in a recent Carroll County Times article, no matter that adjacent counties have already negotiated such upgrades on their own Comcast systems.
The media technology landscape is changing fast and we're changing with it; moving more of our operations online, and developing programs and partnerships to leverage emerging technology, but for now the franchise remains our primary source of operating and equipment funding. Fifteen years ago, during negotiations on the previous 10-year franchise up for renewal in 2010 (yes, it's been that long) we were part of negotiations. Although this franchise agreement critically impacts how we operate, this time we have been shut out, and negotiations between Comcast and the Cable Regulatory Commission have been shrouded in secrecy.
At the recent State of the County presentation, commissioners emphasized the importance of education, work place development and better two-way communication between county residents and elected officials. The CMC has always been at the forefront of such work, partnering with civic, nonprofit and educational organizations across the county to serve Carroll County's media needs. But when global media giants like Comcast show little interest in the local needs of their customers, we can't forget that ultimately "everything is local" and what is said and done here in Carroll County impacts our lives on so many different levels. For 25 years, the Media Center has served this county well, but without this long delayed facility upgrade, we will quickly become redundant, no longer able to maintain the quality of media services that so many organizations and individuals across the county have come to rely on and trust.
We are informed that there will be public meetings to discuss the franchise before any final decision is made. We ask county residents to look hard at what Comcast is offering, and make their voices heard if the new franchise (in force for the next 10 years) doesn't meet the future media needs of Carroll County.
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Leo Eaton is Vice Chair of the Community Media Center's Board of Directors.