Bill seeks to ‘level playing field’ for local access stations

By ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL and MARY BYRNE

Staff Writers

Published: 02-01-2023 8:42 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Community media organizations in Hampshire County are keeping an eye on a proposed bill in the Massachusetts State House that would expand state funding for such outlets by including revenue from streaming services.

Traditionally, community access channels, such as Northampton Open Media and Easthampton Media, have relied on state funding that comes from up to 5% of local cable providers’ revenue. But with declining cable subscriptions and rising operating costs, the amount of money that community media receives has dropped over the past several years.

“A lot of folks have moved from cable and getting content from streaming services,” said Jeff Mastroianni, the executive director of Easthampton Media. “Given the fact that people are cutting cable, that means less subscribers and less revenue.”

According to Mastroianni, revenue has been dropping since 2017, with about a 20% decrease in cable subscribers in the area. In other western Massachusetts communities such as Athol and Orange, cable subscribers dropped 10.2% during that same time frame.

The bill filed earlier this month by Rep. Joan Meschino, D-Hull, and Rep. Matthew Muratore, R-Plymouth, known as HD 215, aims to expand that 5% revenue paid to the state for distribution to towns to include streaming entertainment operators. A similar bill was filed during the last legislative session but failed to make it out of the Senate after passing the House of Representatives.

Al Williams, the executive director at Northampton Open Media, said he was more optimistic about the bill’s chances this year.

“It often takes multiple considerations of legislation before it’s passed,” Williams said. “Those sessions are only so long, and there’s quite a bit of proposals that occur in them. So it can take awhile for discussions to be fruitful.”

Williams said the idea behind the bill is that, just as cable providers use infrastructure that is run over public land, streaming services use similar infrastructure that supplies internet services, meaning they too should have to contribute revenue for state funding of community media.

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“They don’t contribute to the public good like the cable companies do,” he said.

The proposal comes as community media networks are not just looking to streaming services as a source of revenue, but as a means of distributing content such as government meetings and local events. Northampton Open Media often livestreams city council and other government meetings online for those without cable access, an aspect that’s become even more important in the age of virtual meetings with no physical forum to attend. Easthampton Media also livestreams events on YouTube as well as on its own website.

“We’ve got to utilize that kind of technology in order to provide people with that information,” Williams said. “It’s a long overdue public conversation, and there really needs to be a solution.”

Otis Wheeler, who serves as operations manager at BNCTV in Northfield and station manager at Falls Cable in Buckland, said without the success of this bill, or another one like it, community access television will fall by the wayside within a couple of decades. This could shift the burden of covering local government and school committee meetings to the taxpayers.

“For years, people have asked me about the future of community access, because cable is last century’s technology,” Wheeler said. “It’s a relief to hear about this bill. It would really stabilize revenues if it were to pass.”

Alexander MacDougall can be reached at amacdougall@gazettenet.com. Mary Byrne can be reached at mbyrne@recorder.com.]]>