Cox Communications did the citizens of Macon a serious disservice when it removed the the public access, education and government (or PEG) channels off of basic cable and exclusively to the digital package.
Of those channels, the old Channel 14 is probably known best for airing City Council meetings and other programming for the City of Macon. It is not always exciting, but for many years Channel 14 has provided a valuable service by giving citizens a tool for keeping an eye on their government. And now it is inaccessible to Cox customers unless they have a digital converter box or a brand-new TV configured to receive a digital signal.
Cox has a solid record of generosity and doing the right thing for our community. So why has the company decided to be so ungenerous in this case, cutting many of our citizens off from a source of information they can use to hold government accountable.
Cox representatives insist that the move is nothing more than part of a transition to an all-digital future. To an extent, the company has a point. Broadcast television in the United States has already abandoned analog in favor of digital signals, and analog cable channels require more bandwidth than do digital channels. However, there is more to the story.
According to a statement on Cox's Web site: "Transitioning these three channels to the digital tier will free up the bandwidth needed for Cox to launch ESPN News HD, Fuse HD and Style HD in Middle GA. These new HD channels are being added to our lineup in response our customers’ request."
Still, Cox has not come anywhere close to abandoning analog cable channels, only the ones dedicated to public service. The traditional network affiliates continue to occupy their old spots on the dial -- they could sue for breach of contract if Cox moved them. And a variety of other channels continue to be available on Cox's analog feed: ESPN, Country Music Television and the Cartoon Network among them. As a company, Cox clearly has priorities. Unfortunately, a dedication to public service is apparently not among them.
As a member of the City Council, I have been particularly concerned about the loss of Channel 14, Macon's government-access channel. To be sure it is still accessible if you have digital cable, and you can also get a feed on the city's Web site or just come to City Hall to watch the meetings in person. However, for many of our citizens, especially the poorer and older among them, these other choices are no option, and Channel 14 was an important window into city government -- a window that has now been slammed shut.
As much as that bothers me, though, our losses extend further. Herbert Dennard's show is aired on one of the PEG channels. It’s still available, but only if you have digital cable or a new TV.
A large number of churches also air their Sunday services on the PEG channels. Three that spring to mind Macedonia Baptist Church, Mt. Moriah Baptist Church and Smith Street Baptist Church. Ironically, TBN/EWTN continues to air on Channel 41, so the elderly and shut-in can still see church on TV. They just can't see their own pastors and congregations anymore.
Prior to 2008, the City of Macon would have been in a much stronger position to fight, as Cox's commitment to carry the PEG channels was included in a franchise agreement Cox had signed with the city. However, at the beginning of that year, a new state law allowed cable companies to opt out of local franchise agreements in favor of one with the state of Georgia. Cox opted out.
I have instructed the city attorney's office to investigate what avenues of action are still available to the city to protect our citizens' interests and force Cox to honor its commitment to public service. I am committed to doing whatever I can to reverse this injustice.
As we work, there is something you can do, too. Cox representatives have been claiming that they have not heard any complaints from the public about the loss of the PEG channels for basic-cable subscribers. I don't know what they have heard so far, but I know what I have been hearing. The citizens who talk to me are frustrated and disappointed. If you want Cox to know how you feel, please give the company a call at 478-784-8000.
Tom Ellington is the Ward III, Post 3 member of the Macon City Council. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 478-751-7260.