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Originally published Saturday, May 4, 2013 at 9:01 PM

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Alaska’s sole cable provider wants to turn up the power

A fight is raging in Alaska over its homegrown cable company, which is proposing to put its own programming into the cable lines it controls with near-monopoly power in parts of the state.

The New York Times

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ANCHORAGE — Yes, Alaska is woolly and wild. But here is the paradox: It functions in many ways like a medium-size city with a big backyard. Nearly 54 percent of the population, in a state more than twice the size of Texas, clusters here in the largest metropolitan area. That degree of single-city dominance is matched in only a few other places in the United States, notably Nevada, where a tail named Las Vegas wags its dog.

Concentration of population, in turn, creates concentration of power in economics, news and culture, which means that Anchorage — though very different from the rest of the state, if only by virtue of being urban — largely defines what it means to be Alaskan through the messages it sends out and controls.

Now, there is a fight over who wields that Anchorage-centered, Alaska-size microphone.

In one corner, wearing the rainbow-colored peacock logo, is the powerful NBC affiliate, KTUU. As Channel 2, it was one of the first stations on the air here, starting in the early 1950s, before statehood, and it has been crushingly dominant just about ever since in statewide news coverage.

When the Legislature is in session at the capital in Juneau, KTUU has often been the only station covering it full time. And the recession, which swept like a scythe through journalism jobs in Alaska — as it did in many places — left “Alaska’s News Source,” as it calls itself, more pre-eminent than ever as competition faded.

In the other corner, just as muscular in its own way, is a homegrown cable company, General Communication Inc., Alaska’s biggest provider of telecommunications services, from cable to telephone. Last fall the company, known as GCI, proposed going into the content side of the business, putting its own programming into the cable lines it controls with near-monopoly power in parts of the state.

The fight that has raged ever since: Will access to the cable system that snakes out of Anchorage to inform and entertain the state still be fair?

In its application to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which regulates broadcasting, GCI said it wanted to acquire an Anchorage station, KTVA, a CBS affiliate with a small market share in news, and flood the zone with millions of dollars in new resources and news staff. Two low-power television stations, in Juneau and Sitka, would also come under the GCI umbrella.

“We want more coverage of local Alaska,” David Morris, a company spokesman, said in an interview in its Anchorage headquarters.

KTUU’s owners, joined by most other Alaska television broadcasters in a united front, said in filings to the FCC that GCI would naturally favor its own content and strangle competitors through overt or subtle means, like channel placement on the cable menu. They also say, based on comments from GCI executives quoted in affidavits, that the company plans to skew its news coverage toward “corporate interests.”

“KTUU has been the king of the heap for so long, the thought of not being there has to be sort of terrifying for them,” said Lynne Lott, an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, and a reporter at KTUU in the late 1990s. But fears can go the other way, too, she said. “The big complaint is that GCI will be in control of everything everywhere. I’m not sure if it’s true or not, but it’s what people are very afraid of.”

The opposition’s filings specifically ask the FCC to impose equal access conditions, like those put on Comcast, the cable giant, when it bought a broadcast network, NBC Universal, in 2011. Though the numbers might look small — Alaska has only 733,000 residents — opponents of the GCI deal said that, in per capita terms, GCI’s powers to make or break are even greater than Comcast’s.

“Competition is only competition if it creates choice for the consumer,” said Andrew MacLeod, the president and general manager of Northern Lights Media, KTUU’s owner. “Competition that is structured to squeeze someone out is not competition.”

GCI responds that opponents have grown too comfortable with their cozy local clout, and that increased news coverage can only serve the public interest. And if a conservative or pro-business tone in news coverage were to be embraced — though no such decision has been made, the company says in its application documents — well, what of it?

“Licensees’ political beliefs and editorial positions are not a barrier to entry; they are a central asset of our country’s broadcast system,” the company said in one of its commission filings.

Quirks of the far northern life compound the stakes on both sides.

Home satellite dishes, for example, which can allow people to dump their cable providers in the Lower 48, do not work as well in far northern latitudes because of the way satellite orbits are plotted.

But talk of GCI’s possibly growing influence also helped gather votes this spring in the Legislature to find money for a state-chartered television system called the Alaska Rural Communications Service, which serves many small communities and is structurally guaranteed to provide a neutral content mix.

Political support for the service had faltered in recent years, said one lawmaker, Sen. Dennis Egan, a Democrat from Juneau who has raised questions about the GCI sale. Uncertainty about the road ahead made the rural service feel important again.

“I don’t want to knock GCI — they’re good corporate citizens,” Egan said. “The problem is we don’t know what they’re going to do.”

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