Pittsburgh’s current cable contracts with both Verizon and Comcast are set to expire in August 2019, and September 2020, respectively. Pittsburgh Community Television (PCTV) is organizing six focus groups, the first of which will be held on Tuesday, April 23 at CoLab18 in Nova Place, to ask for community input for contract negotiations.

By Ashlee Green

A meeting for community leaders and stakeholders was held at the Pittsburgh Community Television (PCTV) headquarters on Western Avenue on Thursday, Feb. 7, to help determine how to better serve the future communication and media needs of Pittsburgh residents. Both Verizon and Comcast have cable contracts in Pittsburgh that will expire in August 2019, and September 2020, respectively, and the funding for both PCTV and the City Government cable television channels is a result of the language in these current contracts. Thursday’s meeting was the kick-off for a community “needs assessment” that PCTV will conduct throughout the city and will include six focus groups open to the public.

Starting in April, PCTV will host six community focus group workshops throughout Pittsburgh to give the public a “heads up” about the integral role residents have in providing feedback and input for the Community Needs Assessment. These focus groups will be used to create a report for the city and ultimately help them to negotiate the details and stipulations of impending cable contracts. Focus groups will be organized based on interest categories like “Youth, Education and Learning,” “Health, Human Service and Wellness” and “Arts, Culture and Heritage,” but residents can attend whichever one best fits their schedule.

“The last thing you want to do is rush this process,” said Sue Buske, president of The Buske Group, a consulting firm specializing in cable regulation, franchise renewal, and related public opinion research, to the group in attendance. Buske is working with PCTV on the contract renewal process.

Cable companies draft franchise agreements, or contracts, with cities like Pittsburgh, so they can gain access to the public sidewalks and telephone poles necessary to install cable lines and essentially, operate their businesses. Buske compared city residents to landlords and cable companies to tenants.

“It’s a sophisticated lease agreement,” she explained.

In this metaphor, the contract obligations that the cable companies must follow (for example: ensuring quality customer service and clear, easy-to-understand bills and payment notifications) are the rent.

There’s another potential contract stipulation, as well: ensuring that public, educational and government (PEG) access television channels have the same technologies as commercial ones. This means HD capabilities, the ability to broadcast live from various locations in the city and fast bandwidth, or the speed at which information travels (think superhighway versus one-lane country road).

Pittsburgh’s cable stations are not in high-definition (HD) right now because, per the current cable contracts, they’re not required to be. This tells us, Buske said, that Pittsburgh is already “behind the times.”

“The challenge here is to get 200 people to these six meetings,” said Buske. She explained that federal law regarding cable regulation is very old and “siloed” into three categories: television, telephone and internet. When it comes to television, she said, it’s the “only silo local governments can touch.”

According to her, 21 states have already removed the local-level renewal process. Contracts in those states, Buske explained, are now negotiated at the state level, with interchangeable, “rubber stamp” language in their cable contracts. She warned that this cable contract renewal may be the last chance for Pittsburgh residents to voice their opinions, and therefore, it’s a “reason to shout.”

The first focus group will be held on Tuesday, April 23 at CoLab18 in Nova Place from 10 a.m. to noon. An online survey will also be released on this date on the PCTV website www.pctv21.org for residents to provide more detailed input. See the full schedule of focus group meetings and find more information here