Channel change battle in Vermont


There aren’t very many municipally-owned cable TV systems, which is probably a good thing, since politics can then duel with business judgment in determining channel lineups. That’s what’s going on right now in Burlington, VT.

Burlington Telecom has been one of the few US cable systems carrying Al-Jazeera English. But when the manager of the local operation decided to drop it, the mayor got involved and then, it seems, everyone got involved.

The City of Burlington launched its own cable/broadband/phone system to compete with incumbent Comcast. According to its website, Burlington Telecom offers Al-Jazeera English on its higher-priced tiers, right alongside Fox Business Network.

When Mayor Bob Kiss learned back in the spring that the municipal utility planned to drop Al-Jazeera from its channel lineup, he insisted that there first be public hearings. According to the Burlington Free Press, two public forums drew mostly folks who wanted to keep the Qatar-based news network on the cable system.

But since Burlington Telecom is a government entity, the Free Press was also able to use the state’s Access to Public Information Law to make the cable company turn over copies of the letters it received on the issue. There, the tally was also for keeping the network, with 116 in favor and 87 wanting it removed. Many of the anti letters denounced the network for Islamic extremist and called it anti-Semetic. Those in favor of Al-Jazeera generally cited the first Amendment and a desire to have diverse opinions presented.

The outcome is not yet known. Two citizen committees are now working on a recommendation to resolve the dispute. That’s right, it takes two committees to consider the fate of a little-watched cable channel. The Free Press says that recommendation will be sent to Burlington Telecom, Mayor Kiss and the City Council’s utilities committee, as well as made public. Then, perhaps, a decision will be made.