They want their PCN

Columnist : Albert Paschall

Twenty years ago the recording industry teamed up with cable TV operators to create a whole new profit center: music videos. Pioneered by the Beatles in the late 60’s music videos as money makers didn’t really take off until the early 80’s when pop star Madonna barely clad in leather with her pink hair and blue make-up began to belt out new poetic genres called ‘Poppa Don’t Preach’ and ‘Like a Virgin.’ The pestilence of this alleged art form spread with the whiney teen aged battle cry: “I want my MTV.”

And it did. MTV is offered in 3 versions on Comcast digital Cable, the state’s largest cable provider, along with the Country Music Station, Hispanic and Soul versions. Today MTV is dominated by a whole new generation featuring dubious talents like rapper The Notorious B.I.G. and Dashboard Confessional.

But in most of southeastern Pennsylvania and a few rural areas in the southwest the new battle cry is “I want my PCN.”

For those in the affected areas PCN is Pennsylvania Cable Network, the state’s version of C-Span. It’s supported by the state’s cable companies and has been very successful. For the 2002-2003 fiscal year PCN produced 101 hour long call-in shows featuring 116 different guests and nearly 1800 calls were placed from more than 511 Pennsylvania communities. 54% of the calls came from Comcast viewers. Last year” Homework Help on PCN” the network’s Sunday evening call-in show for school kids fielded 670 calls. Most of the calls came from kids in the 5th to the 9th grades.

Now PCN’s programming may not be for everybody. In my home it would be competing with 153 digital Comcast channels and that competition can be pretty stiff. The Love Channel, Soap Operas Around the Clock, Update New Jersey and something called the GAS channel might easily overshadow PCN.

After all, Charlie Gerow of the Penn Center for Public Policy debating Joan Benso of Pennsylvania’s Partnership for Children about the Governor’s plans for public education is not quite the Rolling Stones at Madison Square Garden. The hope is that the general assembly and Governor Rendell won’t ever kiss and make up the way that Madonna and Britney Spears did at the end of their performance at the annual MTV awards last month. But for those of us who follow the most important governmental entity that can be affected by ordinary citizens, PCN is a must watch.

Cable TV remains America’s unregulated monopoly. Back in the 60’s and 70’s as the nation became wired for cable service the experience of larger utilities had the cable companies in Pennsylvania submit to local government oversight. Cities, townships and boroughs that get royalties every year from the proceeds of cable subscriptions are charged with overseeing these behemoths. A job that even the Federal Government, with its over zealous regulatory appetite, refuses to try and tackle. While alternative satellite systems have made isolated dents in cable markets, big shares of the market, people who live in townhouses, condos and apartments are often prohibited from mounting the required dish.

Cable service is inconsistent all over the state. Some areas are offered more channels than others, certain communities are able to get discounts for senior citizens and others can’t, almost all of Pennsylvania can tune in PCN but in most of the southeast it’s not available. The PCN issue could be the gateway to regulation of cable in the state and state regulation has done little over the years to protect consumers.

The reasons why Comcast will not offer PCN through out its service area are vague. State Representative Daylin Leach has put together a bi-partisan coalition in the House and Senate, supported by consumers and business leaders, to find out why. If they fail to get a solution, someday we could see a whole new regulatory structure for cable in the state. It’s time for Comcast to listen to their cry, “they want their PCN” especially when there doesn’t seem to be a good reason not to give it to them.

Albert Paschall
Senior Commentator
The Lincoln Institute of Public Opinion Research, Inc.
[email protected]