TV service providers get PEGged

Never has such amateurish, cheaply-produced TV programming caused such controversy.

Proponents of public, educational and government (PEG) programming have long complained about how cable TV operators treat PEG channels, sometimes placing them in a digital service tier that buries them amid more mainstream fare and requires their already small audience to have to pay more for them.

More recently, municipalities in California, Illinois and elsewhere initiated complaints to the Federal Communications Commission over AT&T's treatment of PEG content in its U-verse universe. Arguably, AT&T pushes PEG more out of sight by assigning it status as a non-channel download application that requires viewers to take extra steps to see their local PEG content. PEG pushers also have complained that this results in poorer video quality.

Yesterday was the deadline for public comments to the FCC on the PEG issue, and Broadcasting & Cable said that more than 200 comments had been filed. It is not clear how quickly the FCC will act, but it would seem that some of the complaints about digital tier assignment would go away with the federally-mandated DTV transition coming up June 12. Or will they? The cable TV operators, for their part, have complained that satellite TV operators never have been required to carry PEG content. Likewise, new IPTV operators such as AT&T may have had more flexibility with PEG content to date because their offerings have not been defined as cable TV services.

PEG proponents say this all amounts to discrimination of PEG programming, but there may be no long-term way to fix the situation without looking more broadly at how TV services are regulated. The FCC may first have to decide whether all TV operators should be on the same regulatory footing. This may indeed be a whole other can of worms that the FCC is hesitant to open, but if satellite TV players, telco TV operators and cable TV firms are all fighting over the same subscribers, maybe it is time to define their video services on the same terms. The alternative would be to create different sets of requirements for how different groups of service providers are to treat PEG programming. And isn't that the approach that exists now, that so many people find lacking?

Meanwhile, as with many controversies, perhaps there is some business opportunity here as well. Setting aside our somewhat joking assessment of PEG programming as amateurish and cheaply-produced, this content does fulfill a need for localized community information and emergency alerts. You could argue that PEG channels deliver at least some of the community-focused information and voice that local newspapers delivered before they were bought up by media giants and gradually ground into dust blown in so many directions by the force of the Internet.

TV service providers who increasingly are looking at how to leverage the Internet's social networking attributes in their TV offerings might imaginatively see in PEG content an anchor for packages that feature a wide array of social networking content applications. It may fit right in with localized location-based applications or Facebook-related offerings, and by better promoting these offerings and focusing on improving their quality, there might be something to gain.

They could also just continue to ignore and marginalize the PEG crowd, hoping that the FCC will do little about it or less, and that the issue will just go away. But, this revolution likely has only just begun.

-Dan

For more:
- Broadcasting & Cable has this story
- B&C has this follow-up on Comcast's comments

Related articles
Municipalities asked the FCC last month for PEG help
A California group complained about AT&T's PEG treatment

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