An overhaul of public access television is most likely coming to Omaha under a pending deal with the city’s primary cable provider.
Revisions to the city’s contract with Cox Communications would end the Knowledge Network’s programming on Cox Channel 17 and close the cable firm’s studio for public access broadcasts.
City officials who led negotiations with Cox said the agreement is designed to improve and expand public access programming, and it would not keep community members from producing their own television content.
But opponents of the deal, testifying Tuesday at a public hearing before the City Council, said the loss of the Knowledge Network channel would limit programming available to needy members of the community and training for broadcasting students.
“This has never been about a student news broadcast, it’s about serving the public in Omaha,” said Jeremy Lipschultz, a communications professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
“We play a vital role in educating people and training people, as well as providing content that commercial broadcasters can’t provide.”
If approved, the deal would require Cox to pay $2 million to the city over the next eight years to support public, educational and government television programming. In addition, the city would have six months to build a broadcasting studio and determine how best to oversee the broadcasts.
Under the 10-year deal, Cox would continue paying the city 5 percent of its gross revenue, which amounts to annual payments of roughly $1.5 million.
In exchange, programming sponsored by public schools and colleges — including the Omaha Public Schools, the Westside Community Schools and UNO — that typically airs on the Knowledge Network would shift to Cox Channels 18, 22 and 109. Those channels would remain devoted to public, educational and government programming.
Although federal law largely keeps local governments from having a say in a cable providers’ subscription rates, cities can require the companies to set aside channels for public, educational and government programming.
Cities often operate such stations in some fashion. In Papillion, a city employee supervises public programming produced in a City Hall studio for its “Papio Vision” channel. The City of Lincoln operates its own public access television channel.
In Omaha, it has worked the opposite way for years. Cox now operates a studio at 114th Street and West Dodge Road and staffs it with an employee who assists with public broadcasts. There are also privately operated studios at UNO and Community Telecast Inc. (Channel 22) in northeast Omaha.
Omaha officials say the current public television system isn’t used as much as it could be.
“It became clear that system wasn’t working,” said Tom Mumgaard, an assistant city attorney who helped lead city negotiations on the first major revisions to the Cox agreement since the 1980s.
Mumgaard also said officials hope to include more governmental programming on the remaining channels, which could potentially include broadcasts sponsored by local neighborhood associations.
“We’re trying to create an opportunity for more people to care,” he said.
How the structure of local public access television would change under the agreement is still uncertain. Nothing would change for six months.
“We have a lot of unanswered questions, basically,” Mumgaard said.
Among them: whether to create a city department or nonprofit group to oversee public broadcasting, whether to construct a new studio space to replace Cox’s public broadcasting facilities and how to allocate space on the three remaining channels among the organizations using them.
A council vote on the deal is scheduled for next week.
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