NEW HANOVER COUNTY, NC (WECT) – Both the city of Wilmington and New Hanover County provide local TV programming, but neither of them include a public access channel.
At the request of some advocacy groups, city staff researched the possibility of public access and presented its findings to city leaders at Tuesday's agenda brief.
Currently, Wilmington does not own any open channels to use for public access. The service used to be found on Channel 4, but Time Warner Cable canceled it, according to the city's legal department.
The city cannot simply have the channel back, because the broadcast bandwidth was reallocated, said City Attorney Bill Wolak. He expects a lawsuit is the only way to win an unused channel from Time Warner Cable.
"They won't give us a channel without an argument," he said. "They don't want to set a precedent."
Wolak told city council Tuesday that Wilmington's chance of winning a lawsuit against the company would be greater than 50%.
Legal staff estimated a court case, likely to reach the N.C. Court of Appeals, to cost roughly $35,000. That does not include the more than $40,000 needed to startup a new channel to be operated by the city or a third-party operator. Half of the setup cost could be covered by a second win in the courtroom, according to staff.
Before considering the cost, Councilman Kevin O'Grady said city leaders need to hear more from the public.
"The numbers aren't outrageous but if there's no desire for it on the part of the population then any amount is too much," O'Grady said.
Steve Lee, with Southeast Alliance for Community Change, listened to Tuesday's presentation. SEACC has rallied for public access since the state took over the city's agreement with Time Warner Cable.
"Wilmington is missing out on being among the elite cities in North Carolina for not having public access," said Lee.
Wilmington already offers GTV8 as a government channel. The state currently splits $4 million in PEG (Public-Education-Government) Funding among 122 public channels. Approximately $32,800 subsidizes GTV8. A new channel would decrease the money in the pool, but the city's amount would double with two channels.
The city also receives of percentage of video programming and telecommunication sales taxes, according to legal staff.
Lee said Tuesday that a public access channel provides the basic service of First Amendment rights to city residents.
"It's a chance for the voiceless and the powerless to be heard than they might have otherwise," he said.
Tuesday's discussion ended without direction from city leaders. The consensus involved the idea of replaying the presentation to inform people of a possible public comment period.
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