With only limited cable carriage, partners end plan for Forum Network
Washington's WETA and its foundation partner, the Freedom Forum, decided Nov. 8  to call off plans for the Forum Network, a public-affairs channel that could have served as a model and programming provider for channels in other cities.
Comcast, the cable operator that owns or will soon own all but one of the major cable systems in the D.C. area, offered to carry only four primetime hours a day of the service, said WETA General Counsel Bill Jarvis. The Forum Network had sought 24-hour carriage.
The time was not right, said Anne Wexler, who serves on the boards of both Comcast and WETA. "More than anything else, it's a transition period we're in now between analog and digital carriage." Though cable systems are expanding channel capacity with digital transmission, they haven't fully converted their systems. Wexler said she introduced the proposal to Comcast but played no part in the company's decision.
"WETA and the Freedom Forum will continue with our partnership,"
said station President Sharon Rockefeller. "Exactly what form that will
take, we're not sure yet."
Rockefeller said the set-back has no relation to Fanfare, a commercially supported classical music-video channel that WETA is starting with partners. Fanfare's launch has been delayed from this month to early next year, she said.
Alliance for Community Media, a national association of local cable-access programmers, "welcomed the decision to pull the plug" on the Forum Network, said Bunny Riedel, executive director. As Jarvis acknowledges, the Forum Network had talked with local cable systems about using channels now designated for public access. "It was one of the most aggressive campaigns to steal access channels that I have ever seen," said Riedel [story below].
Jarvis says some of those channels were underused — in particular a channel on the Washington, D.C., system that runs only text bulletin board announcements from nonprofits. Riedel says carrying announcements for 450 nonprofits every week is "pretty darn good use" of the channel.
WETA denies grabbing cable access channels
Ordinarily, obtaining channels on the Washington area's six major cable systems would require some combination of persistence, program appeal, a great sales pitch and connections, but WETA is finding that it needs body armor as well.
Bunnie Riedel, executive director of the Alliance for Community Media, which
reps cable access programmers across the country, has launched broadsides
in the press accusing WETA and the Freedom Forum of a cynical "channel
grab" for their jointly planned Forum Network.
"It's appalling," said Riedel in a press release. "The Freedom Forum is supposed to promote free speech, not try to bury it by grabbing the people's media."
Last month she said Freedom Forum board member Carl Rowan's support for the project "reeks with hypocrisy" because the access channels "belong to the people of the District, not a multi-million-dollar network based in Virginia." And she dismissed the programming, claiming it would be mostly WETA reruns — "elitist talking heads."
Linwood Lloyd, c.o.o. at WETA, doesn't want the role of Bunnie Reidel's
enemy. He's optimistic that the Forum Network will get access to channels
"We're not trying to muscle our way in," Lloyd told Current. The Forum Network is seeking agreements with channel holders to use underused cable-access channels temporarily, until the cable systems decide they want the Forum Network, or until the systems expand channel capacity within two or three years.
"There are channels on all the systems that have been allocated to entities that simply don't have the resources to use them," Lloyd explained.
Reidel says the Forum Network has failed in every attempt to get channel capacity, but Lloyd counts only one definitive "no" — from the DCTV public access organization. But the owners of the District of Columbia system, AT&T/TCI, have committed a channel for fall 1999, he said.
Talks have been delayed, meanwhile, because most of the area's cable systems are about to change hands. WETA is waiting to talk to the new owner, Comcast, "when they get the keys to the car," according to Lloyd.
Reidel, who has dealt with cable operators, found some sympathy for the Forum Network's plight. "I feel just terrible for them," she said in an interview, "but I feel that somebody didn't do their homework."
Not so, said Lloyd. "We knew we had to go in and find a partner. We are definitely not trying to push our way in anywhere."
Web page posted Jan. 23, 2004
Current: the newspaper about public TV and radio
in the United States
Current Publishing Committee, Takoma Park, Md.