Comcast Deal To Face The Board Without Rules’ Recommendation

by Saqib Rahim on August 4, 2005

Members of the Rules Committee were unconvinced Wednesday, sending legislation involving a potential city deal with Comcast to the Board of Supervisors without recommendation. The public hearing centered on two elements: first, a proposed settlement with Comcast for past failures to uphold its end of a franchise agreement signed in 1964; second, a series of amendments that would extend the franchise to 2009.

The settlement would free Comcast of 13 claims against the franchise agreement, particularly the company’s failure to reconstruct the city’s cable television system by its September 2003 deadline. Comcast would compensate the city’s General Fund $3.5 million, install cable modem equipment in up to 15 homeless support facilities, and fund Public, Educational, and Government (PEG) providers in public access television.

The franchise extension proposes to give Comcast more time to rebuild the cable system, to pay approximately $1.1 million in annual PEG capital support, and to pay $517,000 in annual PEG operating support. Comcast would be permitted to ‘pass through’ these last two payments to its subscribers at $0.52 and $0.24 a month.

Dissent came in many forms, not least from Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, who called the PEG pass-through “painful.” He said the city “could be better gatekeepers, municipally, to stop that from happening.” Mirkarimi also demanded to know why the city hasn’t seriously considered alternatives to the Comcast franchise, such as municipalized broadband and cable.

Labor representatives criticized what they called the company’s hostile record toward organization. “In labor relations, Comcast is as bad as it gets,” said a representative from Communications Workers of America, which represents some Comcast employees in the Bay Area. He asked the Committee to consider legislation to better protect employees from alleged harassment, discrimination and threats by the company.

Public access professionals chastised the franchise’s cutbacks in, and allocations of, PEG funding. “Local cable access is the last truly free bastion of free speech,” said Victoria Wooden, a producer.

Multiple Comcast employees, however, denied that their company treats workers poorly. Nicole Anderson, a sales representative, said of Comcast that “their commitment to diversity is just overwhelming.” Others echoed that sentiment, adding that they felt no need to organize.

A litany of leaders from non-profits and community organizations–including merchants, educators, and churches–also pledged their support, citing Comcast’s generous involvement in their programs. Eva Lee of the Chinatown Merchants Association applauded the cable giant’s exposure of her business district on the program “Inside City Limits.”

“They’re very sensitive to our needs in terms of the community,” Lee said.

Don Collins, the San Francisco School District’s Athletics Commissioner, praised Comcast’s airing of local sports programs. When young athletes see themselves on television, Collins said, “it makes those participants feel good about themselves and what they’re doing.”

But there’s more to Comcast’s shining community record, says Sydney Levy of Media Alliance. “Corporate charity is not a replacement for a good contract,” he says. Levy claims that Comcast’s goodwill spending contrasts starkly with the millions it saves in skewed contracts.

Levy also criticizes the franchise’s sizable allocation of PEG money to ‘capital support’–one-time expenses like cameras and facilities. “If you have more cameras, and no operating support for it, you might as well not have the cameras,” he says. Media Alliance’s website,, claims that the proposed $517,000 for annual operating expenses is a shadow of the $861,000 PEG received in the late 90s.

Comcast announced Tuesday that its profits have recently increased 64 percent. The company has over 21 million television subscribers nationwide and approximately 180,000 broadband and television subscribers in San Francisco. It earned $262 million last quarter, according to a New York Times story on Wednesday.

With that kind of cash flow, Levy says, the franchise deal has got lots of room for improvement. “We believe it’s not the best we can get.”

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