Answering AT&T’s Call

by Mike McCabe, Executive Director

November 6, 2007

For the nearly four months that the state budget stalemate dragged on, we saw the Legislature at its worst. We are seeing it again with the mad rush to pass AT&T’s cable TV bill. What they call the “Video Competition Act” sailed through the Assembly in early May and just got the Joint Finance Committee’s stamp of approval October 31. It is scheduled for a vote in the full Senate on November 8. The governor seems inclined to sign it.

The way this bill is written, it promotes cable TV competition the way the national Clear Skies initiative protected the air we breathe by allowing more pollution and the Healthy Forests program protected trees by opening up national forests to clear cutting.

There is nothing in current state law preventing AT&T from competing with other cable TV providers. The company doesn’t need a new cable franchising law to compete. AT&T needs the new law to make sure it wins.

Reading the bill, it’s crystal clear how it benefits AT&T. It’s not at all clear how it benefits Wisconsin consumers. It takes away local community control of cable franchises. It severely weakens and likely will eventually end access to public, educational and governmental programming on cable TV in many communities. It cripples consumer protection.

If this bill passes and you have a bone to pick with your cable provider, you’ll no longer be able to ask your local elected officials to intervene on your behalf. You will have to call a state government office. And the office won’t be either of the state agencies responsible for consumer protection. You’ll be calling the Department of Financial Institutions. Yep, you’ll be calling the folks who regulate banks about your cable TV service.

This is no coincidence. AT&T wrote the bill, with the help of a corporate-funded Washington, D.C. bill mill called the American Legislative Exchange Council.

You can’t blame AT&T for trying to rig the rules in its favor. But what happened to the idea that our elected state representatives are supposed to look out for us and make sure the deal’s fair? At a bare minimum, you’d think our elected officials would insist that AT&T give Wisconsin a cable deal as good as the company agreed to in Illinois. But lawmakers here seem to have been rendered deaf, dumb and blind by AT&T’s public relations and lobbying blitz.

A front group for the company, TV4Us, has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on TV ads promoting AT&T’s position. The company has spent more than $200,000 on lobbying at the Capitol so far this session, and has given current legislators and the governor more than $352,000 in campaign contributions including over $28,000 in the first half of the year while the bill was being prepared for introduction and was pushed through the Assembly.

The other day AT&T and its allies released a poll aimed at sealing the deal in the Senate. The poll purportedly showing broad public support for the kind of cable TV “reform” AT&T wants was conducted by the Mellman Group, a Washington, D.C. polling firm that boasts on its Web site of its “extensive experience developing effective communications strategies that lead people to choose our client’s product or service, join their organization, hold their opinion, or vote as we would like.” Hell, this outfit doesn’t measure public opinion, it shapes it.

Our legislators have so far shown no sign they can resist AT&T’s bait. In fact, it appears they’re swallowing hook, line and sinker.

Many things will come of this sorry spectacle. Better or cheaper cable TV will not be one of them.

WDC Executive Director Mike McCabe
Mike McCabe
WDC Executive Director

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