City, MCAT ask citizens to evaluate Charter Communications ahead of cable license renewal

Have you ever watched a Missoula City Council meeting on MCAT? How about the Homecoming parade? Or perhaps you have watched a special presentation from the University of Montana or a local community event on a local cable channel.

MCAT broadcasts all this and more by way of live and recorded programming on cable television, as well as its web-based channels.

However, those and other Missoula community media services could be severely diminished, or worse, go away entirely when the city’s franchise license agreement with Charter Communications (Spectrum) expires in December.

That is why MCAT and the city of Missoula are conducting an online community survey, and we want Missoula residents from all walks of life to weigh in on cable services and local programming.

The community survey is part of a broader needs assessment, which will examine the past performance of Charter, as well as the future cable needs of Missoula. Last month, assisted by the Buske Group, we conducted the first phase of the needs assessment: a series of community focus groups where we heard from nearly 100 community leaders, parents, teachers, nonprofit leaders and many others. Now we need to hear from the community more broadly by participating in the survey that will run through May 15.

Background info on franchise renewal

Federal law authorizes communities to license cable television providers, and to collect a “franchise fee” from the provider as “rent” for the use public infrastructure (streets, alleyways) to deliver cable television to its subscribers.

The city of Missoula collects about $800,000 annually in franchise revenue from Charter Communications, most of which funds MCAT.

Those fees pay for a variety of community media services. These include not only the regular local government meeting broadcasts, but also hundreds of annual hours of local community event coverage, media equipment training and loans, and afterschool and summer media technology education programs.

In fact, over the last three years, MCAT’s two cable channels aired nearly 4,000 locally produced programs, and have provided media technology education to more than 300 Flagship program students.

In essence, MCAT serves as Missoula’s all-around community media resource – all funded by the rent our cable provider pays for its use of the public infrastructure.

Once every 10 to 15 years, local governments have the opportunity to examine the past services provided by cable/video service providers and renegotiate franchise agreements. The cable franchise renewal process examines the past performance of Charter – as well as future services that citizens, schools, community groups, businesses and local government would like to include in a new cable franchise agreement.

Given the enormous changes in technology and media over the past 15 years, the process of granting a new franchise to Charter deserves serious consideration and opportunity for public input.

We encourage anyone who enjoys our local media programming to participate in the process and share their thoughts and ideas for community media. The easiest and most timely opportunity to do that is by responding to the online community survey.

Interested Missoula residents can participate in the online survey by May 15 at www.surveymonkey.com/r/Missoula_CableTV_Survey. Let’s hear your ideas for community media and cable services for the next 15 years. Thank you.

Heather Harp represents Ward 3 on the Missoula City Council and serves as a city member of the Missoula Civic Television Advisory Commission. Kay Rabil is the volunteer president of the board of MCAT – Missoula’s Community Media Resource.