Local cable-access TV stations brace for FCC-proposed funding cuts

Massachusetts State House. (Photo by Aaron Ye/BU News Service)

By Elise Takahama
BU News Service

BOSTON — Local cable access television stations are growing more and more anxious by the day, following a proposed funding change by the Federal Communications Commission that could mean the end of dozens of public programs.

Last fall, the FCC proposed a plan that could slash funding for local cable television, potentially forcing them to cut programs, lay off staff or go out of business completely.

The new plan would allow big cable companies, such as Comcast or Verizon, to assign values to public, educational and governmental access channels, or PEG channels, and deduct that amount from the funding they give to local television, according to an FCC statement. It would also cut franchise fees, which cable subscribers pay as part of their cable bill to fund local cable access programs.

Franchise fees often make up nearly all of local television stations’ budgets, said Scott May, executive director of Fitchburg Access Television. Without the fees, many probably won’t survive, he said.

In Fitchburg, franchise fees make up almost 100 percent of the the access television station’s budget, May said.

“It’s the fees that allow us to employ people, to buy equipment, maintain equipment, maintain social media sites and the website and maintain streaming capabilities,” May said. “Everything we do we do only from the income provided by cable providers by the City of Fitchburg … The future would be very bleak without them.

In Fitchburg, this could mean the end of covering the high school’s home football games, the Fourth of July parade, the annual Longsjo bike race and so many other events residents look forward to, May said. For many communities, city council, school committee and other municipal meetings are also some of the most highly watched programs.

“We’re certainly concerned about it because what the FCC decides will determine the future of the operations here,” May said. “It would be very detrimental to our future at least in terms of how we’re set up to operate now.”

When the FCC made the announcement months ago, local television stations, legislators and community members launched a letter-writing campaign to express their concerns about the proposal and emphasize the value of local public programs. But there haven’t been any updates since then, said Wendy Blom, executive director of Lowell TeleMedia Center, which has 27,750 cable subscribers.

Franchise fees also make up the vast majority of the Lowell telecommunications budget, she said.

“It’s just put us all in disarray because we can’t really plan anything,” Blom said. “The FCC is overstepping its mandate of what it should do. … The Cable Act of 1984 said communities would get franchise fees.”

Gary Meuse, executive director of Dracut Access Television, which has about 10,000 cable subscribers and gets about 98 to 100 percent of its budget from subscriber fees, said he thinks the core of the issue comes from the federal deregulation efforts.

“I think we’re in a climate of deregulation and the FCC seems like it’s on a mission to deregulate cable companies and give them relief,” Meuse said. “But as far as I’m concerned, they’re not giving us relief.”

While the decisions are being made on a national level, he also noted how hard local communities would be hit.

“Public access television is really the only place folks can get their hyperlocal content,” Meuse said. “They can get content that is very specifically about their community. It’s youth in schools, it’s high school sports, it’s special events like concerts and it’s selectmen and school meetings.”

A few weeks ago, the city’s cable access station held its 36th annual telethon, which raises scholarship money for Dracut High School seniors, Meuse said. Last year, the city raised $125,000 that went to 59 students, but this year, they broke a record and raised more than $166,000.

“It’s a true example of the tremendous amount of good that comes from cable access … This is an event that’s put on our public access channels and allows the scholarship to generate those kinds of funds that go right back to kids graduating,” Meuse said. “Something like that where you see the money come back is very rewarding.”

It would be programs like this that would be the first to go, he said.

But at this point, the worst part is the uncertainty, said Sam Schauerman, executive director of Billerica Access Television, which has about 15,000 subscribers and gets at least 95 percent of its budget from franchise fees.

“The good thing is that Massachusetts as a state opposes this potential order, but the troubling part is we need the rest of the nation to help us as well,” Schauerman said. “And that’s the larger issue now. If it was just based on Massachusetts, I don’t think their order would go anywhere. But it’s a nationwide issue.”

Before this most recent FCC announcement, Meuse said the biggest fear local cable stations had was cord cutting, meaning people beginning to drop their cable bills in favor of streaming services. Because most public access stations also offer streaming and on-demand programs, subscribers were slowly phasing out their cable services.

“Fortunately, we haven’t seen much of a trend, but that was what we really we were all worrying about,” Meuse said. “Cord cutting is a potential gradual loss of funding, where this FCC thing is like a cliff. It’s like all of a sudden, we’re dropping off a cliff and seeing revenues plummet down to a lower level.”

But despite potential cuts, Schauerman said he’s still just as confident in the value of local cable access TV.

“Access television is about the freedom of expression and ideas with unbiased conversation … it’s a vestibule to the common man,” he said. “It provides a lot of transparency for local governments. And I think that’s a real good thing.”

This article was previously published in the Lowell Sun.

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