RETN, Comcast reach contract agreement (12/17/09)

Dec. 17, 2009

By Tim Simard

Observer staff

The Regional Educational Television Network and cable giant Comcast officially settled their long-running disagreement last week. Both sides agreed to a new contract that will continue funding for the nonprofit television station for the next five years.

The Vermont Public Service Board dismissed the Comcast suit against RETN on Dec. 9, nearly a year after both parties first sat before the governing board with hopes of ironing out differences.

The parties agreed to a new contract on Sept. 30, but delays in paperwork and signatures kept the service board from dismissing the case until this month. The five-year contract will run through Sept. 30, 2014.

RETN Community Relations Associate Doug Dunbebin and Comcast Public Relations Associate Laura Brubaker released a joint statement following the Public Service Board decision.

“Comcast and RETN have signed a five-year agreement that ensures quality educational access programming and associated services will be provided to the towns of Burlington, Charlotte, Essex, Essex Junction, Ferrisburgh, Hinesburg, St. George, Shelburne, South Burlington, Vergennes, Waltham, Williston and Winooski,” the statement said.

RETN airs on channel 16 and provides educational programming, such as coverage of school board meetings and graduations, for cities and towns across the Champlain Valley. RETN is mainly funded by Comcast, which sets aside a portion of its user fees for local programming in accordance with federal and state laws.

The contract dispute between RETN and Comcast, the nation’s largest cable company, has been simmering since 2007. Comcast accused RETN of poor bookkeeping practices and unnecessary expenditures. While RETN agreed to tidy up its financial reporting, it argued that Comcast was trying to usurp authority from its board of directors.

As contract negotiations continued, Comcast agreed to fund RETN on an interim basis. During that time, an independent auditor found no errors or irregularities in RETN’s bookkeeping after the time Comcast brought the issue to attention. The auditor’s report also detailed ways for both parties to reach an amicable solution.

In a separate statement released last week, Dunbebin said the new contract for RETN amounts to a victory for cable access providers.

“We are pleased to have secured full funding for the programming and services we provide our communities and cable subscribers,” Dunbebin wrote in an e-mail. “We now look to our statewide association, the Vermont Access Network, and offer our full support as it works to resolve important issues facing Public, Educational and Government access television in Vermont.”

Rob Chapman, president of the Vermont Access Network, said Comcast has had other contract disputes with small cable access organizations, both in Vermont and elsewhere. The Vermont Access Network represents organizations like RETN on a statewide level.

Chapman said Comcast has tried many times to influence financial reporting practices, as well as the day-to-day operations of organizations such as RETN. It’s as if Comcast is trying to redefine how cable companies work with small networks, he said.

“The access community has resisted that,” Chapman said. “A lot of places are questioning Comcast’s motives.”

As other cases move forward with Comcast, Chapman said he’d continue to push for settlements that keep autonomy for access providers.