"The Politics of Frustration"
Somerville: a Cable Fable
Background: In the mid-70's Somerville was a crowded working-class residential community just outside of Boston. The town's population was primarily of Irish and Italian extraction, with a large number of first-generation Portuguese immigrants and a significant Haitian minority. Surrounded by three elite universities (Harvard, MIT and Tufts), Somerville also housed a substantial number of "outsider" students and academicians. The city's relationship with the large affluent university population, urban decay, racism, and political activism all made the city an interesting place.
In the Spring of 1975 - having worked with community leaders and stakeholders for more than a year - I finished my first significant video-documentary, "The Politics of Frustration", chronicling the events described above and featuring interviews with all of the principals. The Community Cable Advisory Board and Public Access advocates used the documentary to spur education and advocacy about the cable situation within the local community.
Within a few months of its release Somerville Mayor S.Lester Ralph allocated federal CETA funding to establish a permanent community programming entity under local government auspices. The Community Cable Advisory Board unanimously selected me to head up The Municipal Cable Project. Within 3 months Channel 84 - one of the first community owned & run cable channels in the nation - went "on the Cable".
The Value Proposition
I was lucky to be young in a time of great change. So many things all came together in a perfect storm of challenges and possibilities.
During my final year in college in Massachusetts, I began my first attempt at working in the local community using 2 newly emerging media: portable handheld video and cable television. This had opened up new communications channels that enabled ordinary people to be involved in making and sharing media on channels that allowed them to actually interact with each other - and with people in power.
There was a vision, but no jobs at that time. I knew that I needed to learn some practical skills and establish credibility in a marketplace that didn't quite exist just yet.
I was able to take out an affordable student loan so that I could earn a Master's degree in Educational Media, specializing in Instructional Video. Meanwhile, I supported myself by driving cab, soldering circuit boards, busing tables while volunteering with local citizens who shared the vision of making their community cable channel work for them.
In 1974 I produced my first video documentary, "The Poliitcs of Frustration", which chronicled Somerville's struggle to establish community sweat equity in their local cable television system, which had been acquired by large holding corporation.
Within a few months of its release the Mayor allocated federal CETA funding to establish a permanent community programming entity under local government auspices. The FCC required that cable systems must provide Public, Education and Government access to services. The Community Cable Advisory Board unanimously selected me to head up The Municipal Cable Project - one of the first community-run and operated cable TV stations in the United States.
This was all possible because we had an infrastructure for success:
- Federal laws protecting community equity
- National employment incentives
- Investment in the knowledge economy
First ... We Introduce the Players
The Cable Company
In 1971 the Kinney Corporation controlled such diverse holdings as a chain of parking lots, Kinney shoe stores, Mad magazine, a string of funeral homes, - and Warner Brothers records, films, and television studios. At that time the corporation decided, as had many other large holding companies, that cable TV was going to be the happening industry of the future.
Presto! The Warner Communications Corporation was born. The corporation had successfully cashed in on a recognizable media brand name and was marshalling vast financial resources for its anticipated (and heavy) expansion into a growing high-capital investment field.
By 1974 Warner had amassed over 140 local cable TV systems in practically every state of the union. they had become (and still are) the second largest multiple-system owner nation and were actually the largest cable system operator in Massachusetts, where they owned the licenses for eight of the municipalities immediately surrounding metropolitan Boston.
Six of these cities extended in an arc across the northern perimeter of Boston, from the shore in the East to Cambridge and Watertown just to the Northwest.
These six cities (Chelsea, Melrose, Everett, Malden, Medford, and Somerville) constituted - on paper at least - the biggest urban area cable system in the Commonwealth and an excellent springboard for the eventual control of all Boston area cable.
All this rapid expansion had taken its toll - however; the corporation had gotten the cable franchises by buying the license from the smaller local company (a technique known as “grandfathering”), but they had little in the way of their own experience or personnel with which to operate, much less expand, the systems.
Warner’s cable operations were for the most part undercapitalized, overextended, and their workforce was so new and inexperienced as to lack any cohesive management. The subscriber community in Somerville saw a quick succession of vice-presidents, managers, and technicians flow through the local studio, with disappointingly similar fluctuations in policy and service.
The City does due diligence
Somerville’s cable license— first granted in 1966 to a local cable company — had been grandfathered to the Warner Communications Corporation in 1971, although no cable had yet been laid in the city. The city’s reform Mayor S. Lester Ralph hired Public Service Specialist Tony Cennamo in 1972 under a HUD grant in order to renegotiate the license with the company. There was some question as to whether the original license had been granted legally in the first place, as there had been no public hearings as was demanded by state law. Nonetheless Mayor Ralph, newly appointed City Solicitor Larry Bloom, and Cable Consultant Cennamo proceeded to renegotiate the contract with Warner, seizing upon the opportunity to develop a vastly superior license agreement.
In early 1973, however, they began to get pressure from the Somerville Media Action Project (SMAP) and its newly formed offshoot, the Public Access Group. These were young, predominantly politically-motivated media activists and artists who wanted to see the City revoke the questionably grandfathered license entirely and resume the negotiations from scratch - but this time with extensive public information and feedback. David Ramsey, editor of the Somerville Journal, had taken up the issue of community involvement in cable as a personal crusade, and became perhaps its most eloquent and knowledgeable advocate. He investigated Warner’s corporate background and the dubious history of the Somerville license; his efforts sparked the public’s interest in cable and ultimately won him the New England Journalism Award for 1973-74.
But City Solicitor Bloom’s position was that although the initial license—granting process had undoubtedly had its technical faults, nonetheless most of the errors were genuinely unintentional and had been a result of the general confusion and ignorance typical of many early cable negotiations. A court of law, he felt, would not uphold license revocation on these grounds (Warner would certainly contest such an action) and in fact Somerville could very well lose its ability to renegotiate a better contract with Warner if they pushed the issue (A similar case involving the nearby city of Lowell had had just this result).
The state steps in
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts had only recently formed a State Cable Commission in 1972; it was a rather predictable collection of cable industry representatives, academics, and bureaucratic appointees. In the Spring of 1973 the SCC acknowledged that both the Somerville Journal and the Mayor’s Office had asked for clarification of some relevant cable issues and policies; questions which “raise significant legal issues (which) should be of paramount concern to the citizens of Somerville...” Unfortunately (and curiously) they concluded that “We must decline to answer these questions.’ So much for regulation in the public interest.
Thus it is that Somerville came to realize early on that for all practical purposes of dealing with Warner and its cable system, the City stood alone. No other ‘cable cities’ in the area had any cable advocacy strength or interest - to speak of. Both Cambridge and Boston were already on the brink of declaring moritoriums on cable, a move that would negatively impact any cable development in the area for many years. And although the FCC had recently issued its Report and Order (which called for many consumer—protective measures in cable licensing), the cable industry was obviously not pleased — and the FCC was notoriously useless whenever it came to enforcement of its edicts. Meanwhile the State Cable Commission was assiduously washing its hands of the Somerville situation after designing a compromise solution which would reestablish the status quo in the city without answering any of those embarrassing and politically loaded questions. The City itself had little in the way of immediate resources (like money), few regional or national-level contacts for information or lobbying, no large institutional support, and even less in the way of legal precedent or experience to draw upon. Active and vocal support for their cause came from the State Consumer Council (significantly — the only established agency to actually represent the viewpoint of cable subscribers), but even so they were a group with good intentions but predictably little political swat.
By Midsummer of 1973 the issue was fairly well decided, and the cable license renegotiated by City Hall was released for public perusal and comment. All parties agreed that it was a good, community-oriented license; with generous allowances for access programming. equitable subscriber rates, community input to the system, local-origination programming, the free wiring of public buildings and schools, decent technical standards, and the maintenance of adequate consumer servicing. Several important clarifications and changes were requested by SMAP (the Somerville Media Action Project) and then instituted at the insistence of the Consumer Council. That June the Mayor appointed several local citizens as members of the first Community Cable Advisory Board to be established in the Commonwealth. Its purpose was to oversee the development of the cable system, to allow citizen input to that development, and to represent the City in dealings with the cable company. The City was already involved in training local citizens in the uses of video communications through workshops with Tony Cennamo and the Media Action Project.
It was a model contract - at least on paper
Meanwhile, the Warner Corporation had been busily establishing its own identity in Somerville. Having already missed their March 1973 deadline for getting the system into operation, they asked for an extension until October. They missed that deadline too, and had to ask for yet another extension. In the meantime the Cable Advisory Board had been attempting to talk with Warner representatives about delivering on the various services and facilities they’d promised in the contact, but soon found themselves being consistently ignored or simply placated. generally appalled at Warner’s inability to comply with the terms of the contract and seriously upset by the Corporation’s refusal to with them as the appointed community representatives, the Cable Advisory Board in early January asked the Mayor’s Office to initiate revocation proceedings on the basis of Warner’s non-compliance with the license agreement.
A Series of Face-Offs
Warner’s response in this situation proved to be typical of what was to come: the company first denied any responsibility for any delays in activating the system, then they implied that they could not legally be held responsible in any case, followed by the claim that the community had no right to make such unjustifiable demands on them in the first place, and finished off with the promise that they would certainly do better in the future, for sure. This emerged over time as a familiar litany - the alternation of hard line threats with soft sell promises.
A case in point: Warner reacted to the City’s position in early 1974 at first with a battery of lawyers threatening a “Grand Battle”, within a week were promising to “do better” and by the end of February had made public the offer to wire up elderly and public housing projects for free. Now, this turn of events might not seem to be too altogether grim since, after all, the community would ultimately benefit from the confrontation. Unfortunately, when the issue of the free hook-ups was raised again several months later, Warner denied ever having made the promise. On top of that, they started the cycle anew with fresh observations to the effect that they were in effect doing the community a favor by being there, they couldn’t be held responsible. etc.
Corporate Compliance: Public Access
Late in March Warner finally opened the long-awaited and much-ballyhooed Public Access Facility. The community response was overwhelming.. For many months Somerville's citizens had been familiarizing themselves with video production equipment and producing their own community programming through video training seminars provided by the Cable Advisory Board, the Mayor’s Office, and the Media Action Project. Terry Signiago, a local filmmaker, had been selected as the Public Access Facility Coordinator and she already had over 200 fully trained local video producers on file when the Facility opened. Within a few weeks the Public Access channel was filled during the prime evening viewing hours.
But by now the Cable Advisory Board was totally exasperated with Warner’s poor record of consumer service, their steadfast refusal to recognize the CAB as representing the Issuing Authority (as defined in the contract they’d signed) and their continued arrogance in the face of community dissatisfaction with their performance. The Board called for a subscriber rate cut, and citizen testimony at public hearings supported the tactic overwhelmingly.
The Inevitable Crunch
Already far behind schedule, the new Public Access Facility was just too little and too late. By now the Cable Advisory Board was totally exasperated with Warner’s steadfast refusal to recognize the CAB as representing the Issuing Authority (as defined in the contract they’d signed) and their continued arrogance in the face of community dissatisfaction with their performance. The Board cited Warner for contract violations in several areas: poor broadcast reception, inadequate support for Public Access, lack of local origination programming, subscriber service complaints, failure to wire up community schools, public buildings and elderly and low-income housing, among other areas - and called for a subscriber rate cut, based on Warner’s non-delivery of services. At the same time the Assessor’s Office began to look into Warner’s phenomenally low tax payments to the City. Warner reacted by first calling the community’s demands “excessive”, then claiming poverty, and finally promising to deliver more services to the City.
At an open public meeting in mid—May of 1974 cable subscriber testimony ran overwhelmingly in favor of an across-the-board rate reduction. Warner’s response was, (predictably), “We will not continue to come to come to these meetings. Anything we do now is voluntary.” The City, having received none of the system quality reports called for in the contract, seriously considered hiring a technical consultant to work with the Cable Advisory Board in monitoring cable signal quality.
In the meantime the Somerville City Law Office advised the public that a municipally-originated rate reduction was illegal, although the Producer’s Group continued to press for a consumer boycott. The State District Attorney’s Office declared that Warner had committed no criminal tax fraud and so the charged were dropped. When Editor Dave Ramsey left the Somerville Journal in June, there was an immediate and significant drop in the quantity and quality of cable news coverage as a result.
But there still remained the same old contract violations, the same refusal to communicate or work cooperatively. the same rejection of community input, the same corporate arrogance — and so in late October of 1974 the CAB reluctantly called for cable license revocation proceedings again. The Law Office issued a letter to Warner in mid-November citing their numerous violations of the contract, and one week later the Warner management fired Access Coordinator Terry Signiago for her alleged “disloyalty” to the company.
The incident bears some closer inspection: One of the community Public Access Producers had videotaped a meeting of the Cable Advisory Board at which the license revocation, and the justifications for it, had been discussed in detail and the tape was to go on the air for public edification. A Warner management official demanded that a copy of the offending tape be made for him without the producer’s approval and Terry refused. Inasmuch as the copy could easily have been obtained by recording the program when it was cablecast over the public channel it was obvious that the confrontation had been engineered by Warner management to facilitate Terry’s firing and to “punish” Somerville for messing with the Corporation.
Epilogue: There's more to the story, of course.
In the Spring of 1975 I finished my first significant video-documentary, "The Politics of Frustration", chronicling the events described above and featuring interviews with all of the principals. Within a few months Somerville Mayor S.Lester Ralph allocated federal CETA funding to establish a permanent community progragramming entity under local government auspices. The Cable Advisory Board unanimously selected me to head up The Municipal Cable Project. Within 3 months Channel 84 went "on the Cable".