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BCTV, Southern Vermont Cable locked in dispute over public access programming

With additional reporting by Jeff Potter.

BRATTLEBORO—In Vermont, cable television operators are required to provide public, educational, and government (PEG) access programming, and provide the equipment and facilities to produce local programming as a condition of receiving a Certificate of Public Good (CPG) from the Public Service Board (PSB).

For the past 10 years, Brattleboro Community Television (BCTV) has filled that role for Southern Vermont Cable Co. (SVC), which serves the towns of Newfane, Townshend, Dummerston, Putney, and Jamaica.

“We want to provide public access programming and they need to have it, so it’s been a nice, symbiotic relationship,” said BCTV Executive Director Cor Trowbridge.

But that relationship has been strained of late.

BCTV and SVC have been working to upgrade the signal quality of BCTV’s Channel 8, and BCTV has been urging SVC to add Channel 10 — BCTV’s education and government channel — to its system. BCTV representatives say they thought things were heading along the right path.

SVC was issued Certificates of Public Good allowing it to serve subscribers in Newfane and Putney in 1988 and Dummerston in 1995. When the PSB allowed SVC to take over the assets of the nonprofit Townshend TV in 2001, the board gave the company the authority to expand the system into Jamaica.

Officially, BCTV has had a longstanding agreement to provide Channel 8 content only to Putney subscribers but has made its broadcast available over the years as SVC expanded its system, according to one person familiar with the negotiations.

The station set out to negotiate a new agreement that would formalize the arrangement for all five towns.

Meanwhile the station wanted to remedy what its staff and board considered a disparity: Comcast subscribers in Brattleboro, Vernon, and Guilford, who fund PEG programming through a 0.5 percent surcharge on the cable television portion of their monthly bills, pick up a disproportionate amount of the operational funding of the station’s content because the original Putney agreement was so nominal.

“That has paid for technology upgrades and expanded programming,” Trowbridge said. “SVC subscribers have benefitted from this.”

This dispute has heated up even more as SVC applies for a renewal of its CPG from the PSB.

In August, BCTV petitioned the PSB for permission to participate in the hearings. Trowbridge pointed to a 2-inch-tall pile of documents in her office.

“This is all the written testimony that is to be submitted to the PSB,” she said. “If SVC gets its way, none of it will be seen or heard by the board.”

On Dec. 6, SVC broke negotiations and asked the PSB for permission to amend its CPG renewal to exclude BCTV from its public access plan, and to prevent BCTV from having party status in the renewal hearings.

At the same time, the company is seeking an exemption from the PEG requirement because it has a small subscriber base — roughly 1,700, according to the PSB.

“Obviously, after achieving success with our negotiations and eventual contract signing with Comcast, to have our local smaller provider pull out of negotiations like this is surprising and disappointing,” BCTV Vice President Tim Wessel wrote on iBrattleboro. “We will continue to welcome negotiations for a fair agreement for everyone, so that those who enjoy BCTV programs can continue to do so.”

Why the fight?

In an e-mail statement, SVC president Ernest Scialabba said that SVC “has provided funding to BCTV for public access programming for approximately the last seven years without passing those costs onto Southern Vermont’s customers. BCTV is no longer satisfied with the level of funding and would like more.

“Rather than increasing the costs for our customers associated with public access programming,” he continued, “[we are] investigating alternatives that would meet the community needs at a more affordable level.”

Trowbridge said SVC has shouldered relatively little of the cost of funding BCTV.

She added that BCTV is providing its programming for a nominal fee, and is willing to work with SVC to develop a public access strategy.

“We respect that SVC is a small operation,” Trowbridge said. “We’re a small operation, too. We have always been willing to work with them. We simply want to be able to clear up the signal quality problems and add Channel 10 programming.”

Neither Trowbridge nor Scialabba offered information about how much SVC now pays to BCTV for its programming, or how much additional money BCTV is seeking.

According to BCTV’s public nonprofit filing with the Internal Revenue Service, the organization received $202,435 in program service revenue from all sources, including Comcast and SVC.

The need

According to Trowbridge, BCTV conducted a study in 2008 to find out how well its channels were meeting community needs. They found that SVC subscribers had difficulty watching Channel 8 because of poor signal quality, and that they wanted to receive Channel 10 programming, especially from Brattleboro Union High School.

“Brattleboro is the hub of Windham County,” she said. “This is where people come to shop, to work, to play. Everything flows here.”

Putney and Dummerston are in the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union, so there is a demand in those towns for seeing the daily live programming produced by BUHS students. State Rep. Mike Mrowicki, D-Putney, also hosts a regular webcast from Montpelier to his constituents that’s aired on BCTV.

There is not as much regular programming for the West River Valley towns of Newfane, Townshend, and Jamaica, although Trowbridge said residents in those towns have used the BCTV studios to produce programs.

BCTV reached out to its SVC towns in an attempt to set up broadcasts of its Selectboard meetings, a service that the five boards declined, according to one station volunteer.

What’s next

The PSB is expected to rule on BCTV’s petition on Feb. 18. Until then, Trowbridge said she is trying to get the word out that SVC customers may lose BCTV programming — programming that is touted on the SVC website as a benefit of a subscription to the service.

“There’s always something that needs to be done here at BCTV, but I’m having to spend energy on this,” she said. “It takes a lot of work and investment to keep this all going, and the more people who are able to get our programming, the more support we can receive.”

Comments on the renewal may be sent to the Vermont Department of Public Service at vtdps@state.vt.us or 112 State St., Drawer 20, Montpelier, VT 05620-2601. Viewers may also call 800-622-4496. The docket number is 7633.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #81 (Wednesday, December 29, 2010).

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