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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Public Cable TV

The big rush is on for obtaining cable TV franchises throughout the country. With nearly 20 percent of the homes possessing TV presently wired, the cable in­dustry expects that, during the next 10 years, most of the remaining homes will be connected.

The major cable companies, busily wooing local governments in state after state, are drooling over the prospect of big profits from the monthly cable fee and other special pay TV charges. At the same time, financially hard-pressed municipalities see an op­portunity for quick revenues from their five percent of the cable franchise’s gross receipts.

Normally, the future cable customers are silent, but in St. Paul, Minn., the cable customers are organizing. They have formed the St. Paul Cable Cooperative (411 Main St., St. Paul, Minn., 55102) to apply for the cable franchise in their city. This month, the St. Paul City Council will decide who will own and operate this marvelously diverse communications network for the next 15 years.

As the first urban co-op cable applicant in the United States, the St. Paul effort is broadly based and well organized. Minnesota long has been a pioneer land for co-ops — rural electric, oil, grain, dairy, health care —so the citizenry is quite familiar with both producer-owned and customer-owned businesses. So a cross-section of teachers, bankers, union leaders, engineers, accountants, lawyers, architects, workers, minority groups and other representative community people took quickly to the co-op idea.

However, understanding the importance of cable TV before it is installed requires a strong program of public education. Here the people of St. Paul were fortunate. According to Carol James of the cable co-op group, the city of St. Paul actively sought citizen participation in the franchise deliberation process. From this positive invitation, the idea for the cooperative sprang forth. Some 200 volunteers are working to develop support through neighborhood petitions and increased awareness of what a customer-owned cable TV network can do for the metropolitan area. For in addition to the usual cable fare of movies, news and sports, cable offers direct people-to-people communication on public-access channels and two-way cable.

Just listen to the enthusiastic description of the cable cooperators in St. Paul:

“Cable TV will become a neighborhood news source, `narrowcasting’ news of interest only to people who live in a given neighborhood, such as Lexington­Hamline or Summit-University, for example.

“The cable co-op is the only bidder offering locally produced and locally controlled programming for each of the city’s 17 citizen participation districts. And, these local channels will be available free to all houses that hook up to cable. Additional free channels would offer information and programs of interest to minorities and the elderly.”

One of the reasons why cable TV has been a disappointing rehash of reruns and has not come close to its potential in many communities is because the customers have not probed deeply into how many of their civic problems, solutions and aspirations can be helped by local programming and use of cable channels. To achieve this level of cable literacy, a customer-owned cable co-op is without peer. No ab­sentee cable company — interested largely in cash flow out of the area and less accountable to its customers — can possibly match a co-op.

The commercial cable companies know that a co-op has this kind of appeal. After all, any adult can become a member by buying a $10 share, entitling that person to vote and to share in the surplus. So many commercial cable giants use other arguments. They say that a co-op could not get the financing, does not have the experience in building the system and could not keep up with changing technology.

These same allegations were made against the town of San Bruno, California, when that town made the decision in the early ’70s to establish municipal ownership of its cable system. The allegations were inaccurate. San Bruno’s cable has worked very well indeed, with surpluses ahead of projections and service so prompt that nearby commercial cable customers are envious.

Also, sellers of cable equipment and installers of cable systems are ready to do business with any kind of cable ownership. Financing is available from normal markets in many cases because of the in­creasing profitability of cable.

The St. Paul City Council’s decision in this metropolis of 100,000 households will have a stimulating effect on citizen efforts in other cities if the cable co-op is awarded the franchise. At stake is whether cable communications technology will be used for, of and by the people themselves for their own community objectives or be controlled by far-away cable conglomerates and their advertisers.