AT&T's Wisconsin Network Finds Broad Support for Video "Choice"

phoneIt's no secret that polls are used to shape public opinion at least as much as they're used to measure it. The website of one major U.S. polling firm, the Mellman Group, boasts its "extensive experience developing effective communications strategies that lead people to choose our client's product or service, join their organization, hold their opinion, or vote as we would like."

Polling was used as a perception management tactic in the national debate over the children's health insurance program known as SCHIP. As President Bush prepared to veto an SCHIP reauthorization bill, Republican strategists worried about the impact on their party. Republican pollster David Winston came up with a solution: present the party's opposition as an attempt to "'put poor kids first' rather than expand coverage to adults, illegal immigrants and those already with insurance," reported the Wall Street Journal. "Independents favored that message 47%-38%." The veto went ahead, with the "poor kids first" theme figuring prominently in Republican talking points and briefing materials, such as the White House's "Five Key Myths About President Bush's Support for SCHIP Reauthorization."

Polls are also frequently employed as part of a "bandwagon" strategy: most people support (or oppose) this, so you should support (or oppose) this, too. Last year, a poll purported to show strong opposition to "net neutrality," the principle that networks should provide access to any data, without discrimination. But the poll questions were highly leading, asking participants whether they preferred "new TV and video choice" and "lower prices for cable TV," or "barring high speed internet providers from offering specialized services." The poll was funded by Verizon Communications, which opposes net neutrality.

Another telecom-related poll was unveiled last month at a press conference in Madison, Wisconsin. According to a press release (PDF) put out by the newly-formed Wisconsin Video Choice Coalition, "Wisconsin residents across demographic, geographic and party lines overwhelmingly support a state bill that would encourage competition to cable TV."

By all accounts, the legislation in question is controversial. Why, then, did the poll find such strong support for it?

Dialing for Dollars

The main impact of Wisconsin Assembly Bill 207 / Senate Bill 107 (AB 207 / SB 107) would be to move video franchise decisions from the local to the state level. A memo (PDF) from the nonpartisan Wisconsin Legislative Council explains that the bill "replaces municipal franchising of cable television service with a streamlined state franchising process. ... This new process reduces the state's and municipalities' roles in regulating those services."

Also known as the "Video Competition Act," the legislation has been most strongly supported by AT&T, which wants to offer video services over its phone lines. AT&T Wisconsin's president claimed that "if the company were required to negotiate TV franchise agreements with each" of the 438 communities it provides phone service to, "consumers would have to wait years to get AT&T's video products."

Accordingly, AT&T has devoted major resources to ensure the bill's passage. Representatives from AT&T and the state cable industry met with legislative staff as the bill was being drafted, reported Madison's Capital Times newspaper. AT&T also hired 15 lobbyists and ran full-page newspaper ads touting the bill. The Milwaukee branch of the AT&T supported "astroturf" group TV4US ran television ads around the state. In May, TV4US sent every state legislator binders full of what it said were the names of constituents "demanding an end to the cable monopoly" and wanting "real alternatives to cable in Wisconsin." However, several people named in the binders, including two state lawmakers, said they didn't support the bill and hadn't given permission for their names to be used.

Opposing AB 207 / SB 107 are the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group, labor unions and proponents of public access media. The League of Wisconsin Municipalities, which represents nearly every city and village in the state, also opposes (PDF) the bill in its current form. (Disclosure: The Center for Media and Democracy's Judith Siers-Poisson spoke at a press conference organized by opponents of the legislation, addressing the role of the astroturf group backing the bill.)

While the early debate over AB 207 / SB 107 fit a familiar pattern of telecom industry versus grassroots groups, other players have since become more vocal advocates of the bill. The strong public support found in the recently-announced poll suggests that either state residents view the issue differently than public interest groups do ... or the industry push for the legislation has become more savvy.

Video Drones

The Wisconsin Merchants Federation (WMF) praises AB 207 / SB 107 (PDF) for promising "to increase the level of competition in the video entertainment business," as well as "create good-paying jobs" and "bring (literally) hundreds of millions of dollars in capital investment to our state."

While WMF has lobbied on behalf of AB 207 / SB 107 for some time, testifying in favor of it back in March, its advocacy seems to have increased of late. In August, WMF Senior Vice-President David Storey praised the bill at a press conference. The favorable poll, which WMF commissioned from the Mellman Group firm, was released the following month. WMF organized a September 24 press conference to announce the poll results, featuring the "Wisconsin Video Choice Coalition," a group that WMF had founded. WMF's weekly report for October 12 (PDF) states, with regard to AB 207 / SB 107, "This past week, similar to meetings we had in recent weeks with legislators, we met with members of the governor's senior staff regarding the polling showing support for these bills."

According to its website, WMF's mission is "to insure that what is in the best interest of retailing becomes the law of the land in Wisconsin." WMF lists among its successes "repealing the personal property tax on merchants inventory" and "passage of retail theft laws."

Why do retail store owners care about video franchising? WMF's David Storey told PR Watch that his group sees AB 207 / SB 107 as an economic development issue. "Where consumers have choices, not only are the consumers served, but the economy in general is served. The economy is made stronger," he explained. "And this is all about consumer choice in the video entertainment field."

Storey said that no particular member had asked WMF to support AB 207 / SB 107, but that he was personally interested in the issue, as the former Deputy Secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Commerce. Asked for a list of WMF members, Storey responded that one was not available, but that information would hopefully be added to the WMF website in the future.

One thing that is clear is that many of WMF's partners in lobbying for AB 207 / SB 107 have ties to the telecom industry. The Coalition of Wisconsin Aging Groups, which is a member of the Wisconsin Video Choice Coalition, has received funding from AT&T and from SBC Wisconsin, which is now part of AT&T. The group also offers "discounts on assistive devices for the telephone such as volume amplifiers from the AT&T Special Needs Center." Another Wisconsin Video Choice Coalition member, the Wisconsin Technology Council, lists AT&T among its major sponsors. Fellow coalition member Women Impacting Public Policy is a Washington DC based group that receives funding from AT&T and Verizon, among other corporate sponsors.

The August 2007 Madison press conference at which WMF spoke in favor of AB 207 / SB 107 was organized by (PDF) another Washington DC based group, the Fiber to the Home Council (FTTH Council). The FTTH Council is comprised of "approximately 800 company member delegates," most of which represent businesses that provide equipment and/or services related to fiber optic systems. Nonprofit institutions can apply to join the FTTH Council, but their membership must be approved by the Board of Directors. Moreover, nonprofits allowed to join the FTTH Council can not serve on the Board or vote on Council issues.

For Whom the Firm Polls

Are these telecom ties important, if 65 percent of Wisconsin voters favor AB 207 / SB 107, as the WMF / Mellman Group poll found?

According to WMF's David Storey, his group commissioned the poll not only to get public input on AB 207 / SB 107, but also to help defuse the controversy around the bill. "It was becoming a legislative issue. It was becoming almost a political issue," he told PR Watch. "We just wanted to see, are we on the right track? Are we worried about something that maybe the consumers were not worried about? So we wanted to push it out, into the general public of the state."

The Mellman Group didn't respond to requests for comment, but PR Watch obtained a copy of the poll results (PDF). The poll is standard in its overall structure and wording, but two sections raise questions about how its findings have been interpreted.

In one section, those polled were split into two groups and asked one of two versions of the same question. The question sought to gauge satisfaction with cable TV, telephone, high-speed broadband Internet and wireless telephone services. One version of the question asked "how satisfied are you with the current level of competition," while the other asked "how satisfied are you with the variety of choices."

The poll summary highlights a lack of satisfaction with cable TV, compared to much higher satisfaction rates for the other media services mentioned. However, the numbers given correspond to just one of the two poll samples -- people who were asked the question using the phrasing "current level of competition." The other sample -- people asked about "the variety of choices" -- gave cable TV a higher ranking. (The cable TV results were 29 percent favorable and 51 percent unfavorable in the "competition" sample, compared to 43 percent favorable and 35 percent unfavorable in the "choices" sample.)

Perhaps more concerning is how the WMF / Mellman poll characterizes opposition to AB 207 / SB 107. This section presents those polled with two statements, one describing why people support the bill and one describing why people oppose the bill. Participants were then asked which of the two statements they agree with.

While the "supporters" statement echoes supporters' actual arguments, including increased competition and lower costs for consumers, the "opponents" statement is deemed misleading by actual opponents. Mary Cardona, the Executive Director of the Wisconsin Association of PEG Channels, challenged the poll's "opponents" statement with regard to PEG (short for public, educational and governmental) station funding.

For example, the poll states: "Opponents of this law say that the state legislature should not pass the bill ... because community access stations would be required to spend up to $1 million dollars [sic] to upgrade their equipment." Cardona told PR Watch that this is not what AB 207 / SB 107 would require. Instead, she said, "this bill passes on AT&T costs to PEG stations. In the past, the cable operator has always provided all of the interconnections from our stations to their end. AT&T wants to pass off the price of conversion equipment, which they need to have our normal broadcast signal stream on their systems. ... They want us to do that, which is going to be very cost prohibitive, especially for our smaller stations." Cardona couldn't say how Mellman might have come up with the $1 million figure used in the poll.

Cardona also listed several major reasons why her group and others oppose AB 207 / SB 107 that are not mentioned in the poll. "We can not add [new PEG] channels. ... Local communities will never be able to get a dedicated channel ever again. We can not advertise or do underwriting on PEG channels under AB 207, which means we can't help ourselves with funding," she stated. "There's no enforcement for build-out provisions," which require video services to be expanded to cover currently unserved, mostly rural communities. "There's no enforcement for consumer protection that's at all effective." Lastly, Cardona said, the bill would establish statewide video "franchises in perpetuity."

Would most Wisconsin residents support AB 207 / SB 107, after hearing those concerns? It's impossible to know, just as it's unclear whether the people who designed the WMF / Mellman Group poll consciously tried to skew its results.

Regardless, AT&T must be pleased.

Diane Farsetta is the Senior Researcher at the Center for Media and Democracy, which publishes PR Watch.

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AT&T is no longer a phone company. It's a marketing company, and it uses the same techniques to sell its products as marketing experts use to advise companies to sell corn flakes or junk food or (even more frightening) prescription drugs. See the ads. AT&T has come up with a device, as the New York Times put it a while back, to do video on the cheap. It's technologically inferior to other methods of delivering video to the home, but it's relatively inexpensive and eminently marketable. Of course, when you're trying to market an inferior product, you don't want pesky government regulators to try to impose technical standards on you, or yank your license to do business if you don't perform. That's why video franchises under the Wisconsin bill are forever, regardless of whether they turn out to be a good deal for consumers or not. Why would the Legislature agree to such a scheme? Maybe because AT&T and its cable allies opened their wallets in a touching display of affection for candidates for public office in Wisconsin in 2006 and 2007. For AT&T alone that translated into more than $109,000 in individual and political action committee (PAC) contributions from January, 2006 through June 2007, according to reports filed with the State Elections Board and a campaign finance database maintained by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign (WDC). Charter Communications employees threw in nearly $17,000 in individual contributions, and Time Warner employees threw in $7,830, according to the WDC database. When push comes to shove, will that affection translate into votes for a cable bill being pushed by AT&T? It seems to be. Full disclosure: I'm a shareholder in both AT&T and Time Warner, though I'm embarrassed to say so. Also, I work for the Wisconsin Alliance of Cities, which wants to see improvements in consumer protection, public access offerings and local government control along the lines of a law enacted in Illinois, and I'm proud to say so.

If Mary Cardona, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Association of PEG Channels, doesn't know where the $1 million figure came from, perhaps she should read her own reports every once and awhile. <a href="">According to this report</a>, from the Wisconsin Association of PEG Channels, the cost of PEG equipment upgrades will be $192,000 a year over 5 years, or $960,000. Sounds like $1 million to me, Mary. Speaking of disingenuous, no where in this article do you mention that the Center for Media and Democracy, parent of PR Watch, is a member of "Teletruth Wisconsin", and listed as an official opponent of AB 207 on their website. Its more than a little ironic that an organization that prides itself on demanding full disclosure in public debate can't even live up to its own simple standards. Scratch that, not ironic, hypocritical. And disappointing that you would tarnish your own reputation that way. My advice to Teletruth/P.R. Watch/WisPEG is that if you really don't believe the results of the poll, if you really think the questions are biased, then issue your own poll. I'm guessing the only reason you haven't done that is because common sense tells you that the public hates cable companies so much and so few people really watch PEG programming, you know these poll results are dead-on. But go ahead, prove me wrong.

As I wrote in the article: <blockquote><u>Disclosure:</u> The Center for Media and Democracy's Judith Siers-Poisson spoke at a press conference organized by opponents of the legislation, addressing the role of the astroturf group backing the bill.</blockquote> That has been the extent of CMD's involvement on the issue; we don't support or oppose pieces of legislation. I agree that it would be interesting to see if another poll with more neutral phrasing would find a different public response to the bill. If you would care to donate the $15,000 to $30,000 that a UW political science professor estimated such a poll would cost, we'll get right on that.