Proposed FCC rules could hit cable access TV hard

  • David Newland, center, a production coordinator for Northampton Community Television, talks with Henry White, right, host of the program "Spotlighting Paradise," and guest Robert Davis in the NCTV studio in January 2014. STAFF FILE PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • U.S. Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., speaks during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.  AP PHOTO/ANDREW HARNIK

For the Gazette
Published: 4/5/2019 3:53:17 PM

BOSTON – Community access television could be hard hit by a proposed Federal Communications Commission rule change that would release cable companies from their obligation to provide channel space or financial help for public, educational and governmental channels.

The new rules would reinterpret a law known as the Cable Act that has been untouched since 1984, and concerns people like Al Williams, executive director of Northampton Community Television.

“We run public art programs, the Northampton Film Festival,” Williams said. “We run youth programs, we heavily subsidize school programs … there's a lot of opportunities for loss.”

The Cable Act established the FCC’s policies on channel ownership, franchise provision, and subscriber rates. The act also created jurisdictional boundaries between federal, state and local authorities related to regulation of cable companies.

Since then, cable companies have been able to set their own rate structure in exchange for providing “in kind” donations, or community media resources in the form of public, educational and governmental access (PEG) channels. If the new rules go into effect, cable companies would no longer have to provide channel space nor revenue for existing PEG channels.

U.S. Sen. Edward Markey called attention to the proposed change in a press conference in his Boston office earlier this week, commending Massachusetts for being a voice of opposition, and urged that other states follow suit, calling the action a “revolution.”

In November, MassAccess, the organization for community access television in Massachusetts filed formal comments urging the FCC to reject the proposed rules, citing the importance of community television and the ambiguity of the rule.

Under the proposed rules, cable providers would be able to place values on PEG channels, and subtract that valuation from the total franchise fee paid to towns for use of airspace. Cable companies like Comcast and Charter Communications, which serve Northampton and Easthampton respectively, pay at most 5 percent of their revenue to towns as the franchise fee.

This would have a substantial impact on local media outlets, funded almost entirely by these fees, said Jen Ramsey, executive director of Easthampton Media.

“In the past five years, there's been a 20 percent drop in cable subscriptions in the two towns that we service,” Ramsey said. “So that translates to a 20 percent drop in our budget. Our budget is dwindling already.”

Easthampton Media operates on a budget of $270,000 a year, Ramsey said, made up of franchise fees paid to the towns of Easthampton and Southampton. Charter has yet to provide a possible figure for the evaluation of these PEG channels, so Ramsey remains in the dark about the future of the funding.

Northampton Community Television stands to lose $240,000, more than half its yearly budget, if the FCC allows the rules to move forward, Williams said. Though Comcast has not yet provided a figure, Williams said he has been given valuations ranging from $30,000 to $80,000 for NCTV’s three PEG channels.

The service these channels offer to the town is vital, Williams said, citing coverage of municipal meetings, transparency of government, and community access to television production and training.

Without the full amount provided by franchise fees, Williams is unsure how community media would continue to operate. He doubted Markey’s suggestion that local governments would shift money from other public works to keep PEG channels active, adding NCTV is currently attempting to diversify their revenue streams because there is little precedent for funding sources for community television outside these fees, he said.  

“The nature of our business is that we're providing tools for people who don't have voices in the community,” Williams said. “That's not necessarily a popular thing to fund.”

Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChapelle agrees.

“It is easy for me to say my intention … is to make up the difference with municipal funds,” LaChapelle said. “Do I want to do that? Absolutely. Will I do that? Will I have the fiscal capacity to do it? No. Absolutely not.”

LaChapelle called the ruling a free speech issue. The FCC is not required to abide by public comment or negotiate with cable providers or cities, but the new rule narrows the scope of what is possible for local stations, LaChapelle said.

As budgets tighten, choices have to be made between equipment upgrades, staff benefits, or following the local softball team to state championships, LaChapelle said.

“You get these cable operators who are really, in a backhanded way, defining what public access TV programming will look like,” LaChapelle said.

Williams emphasized what he felt to be the importance of local access television to the community.

“I think it can be vibrant and essential. In Northampton, I think we're somewhat of a regional hub for filmmaking. People come and create and learn how to use their voices, they become fluent in technology,” Williams said. “We're an economic development tool. At the base level, we provide access to government transaction that the community wants to be informed about.”

Ramsey echoed this statement, noting how small community operations can bring diversity to programming.

“The community would lose the platform for free speech, an alternative to the commercial mainstream media, professional training equipment, mentorship from our staff here,” Ramsey said. “We have, you know, people of all walks of life come in and want to learn how to create multimedia content, and we're here to help them with that.”

Lillian Ilsley-Greene writes for the Gazette from the Boston University State House Program.


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