Among the hundreds of matters the City Council crammed into its last week of business before breaking until January — including more than 80 hearings in one day — was the contentious issue of African-American-owned low-power stations seeking free access to Comcast Cable. More than 60 people showed up to support R.J. Watkins, a Highland Park businessman, and his TV 68, TV 33 and WHPR 88.1 FM radio — which provide extensive local coverage of African-American religious news and issues.

Watkins’ lawyer eloquently argued that the council can require Comcast, through the city’s franchise agreement with the mammoth national cable company, to provide free airtime to local low-power stations, just as the FCC requires Comcast to provide free airtime to the major networks. Council members Ken Cockrel and Scott said they support adding language to Comcast’s franchise agreement, currently under negotiation, to require such access.

“I want it on the table,” Scott said. “More so as an African-American woman. Anything that’s going to enhance empowerment, we have an obligation to support as elected leaders.”

Ken Cockrel said he thinks the problem runs deep. “Part of the problem here is that Comcast is the only game in town.” Comcast didn’t show up at the hearing. But afterward, company spokesman Bill Black said Watkins is asking for something he’s not going to get. Black said there is a “broad range” of African-American religious programming available on Comcast and that because Watkins’ stations are commercial and low-power, they don’t qualify for free airtime.

“This is a contractual dispute,” Black said. “Mr. Watkins has not lived up to his side of a long-standing agreement (to lease airtime from Comcast) and apparently thinks the Detroit City Council can get him out of it. He does have other options. Rather than demanding a full-time channel, he could lease access on a part-time basis for a fraction of the cost.” Meanwhile, Watkins accuses the company of acting “arrogantly” and is off the air after running up a $100,000 bill.

Lisa M. Collins contributed to News Hits, which is edited by Curt Guyette. He can be reached at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]
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