BRATTLEBORO—A proposed rule change by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) could have a devastating impact on public access stations such as Brattleboro Community Television (BCTV) and Falls Area Community Television (FACT-TV).
The FCC’s proposed new rules (Docket 05-311) would allow cable operators to reclassify certain services and charge them against the cable subscriber fees that are collected to fund public access stations in Vermont and across the country.
This means that companies such as Comcast, which holds the cable TV franchise in Brattleboro and Bellows Falls, would be able to assess the value for “in kind” services related to providing public, educational, and governmental (PEG) access channels, and deduct that amount from the franchise fees passed to municipalities.
Unfortunately, said BCTV Executive Director Cor Trowbridge, the FCC’s proposal loosely defines in-kind costs, which can include the value of the cable channels themselves as well as any other services provided.
According to its press release, the FCC’s stated objective is to “reduce barriers to infrastructure investment,” but Trowbridge says the federal agency fails to set any guidelines or limitations to the values that cable companies can assess.
“It’s all about deregulation,” said Trowbridge. “Cable TV is the last form of media that is still regulated and required to operate in the public interest.”
Trowbridge said BCTV relies on cable revenues for 85 percent of its annual budget, or $250,000. Under the proposed FCC rules, “it’s conceivable that BCTV’s operating funds could be eliminated,” she said.
A kick-start for PEG channels
When the federal Cable Communications Act was enacted in 1984, it allowed local cable franchising authorities to require cable operators to set aside one or more of their cable television channels for non-commercial, nonprofit local programming, and also to house, equip, and fund these operations.
While BCTV had been around since 1976 as the first public-access cable channel in Vermont, the 1984 federal legislation helped it, and other PEG stations around the U.S., grow into vital community resources.
Trowbridge says BCTV’s staff and volunteers produce more than 1,200 hours of original local content each year.
Those programs are broadcast on cable channels 8 and 10 in Brattleboro, as well as online at BCTV’s website and YouTube.
Nearly half of those program hours are produced by volunteers. BCTV provides equipment and training that allows community members to create content.
Brattleboro, Guilford, and Vernon receive BCTV’s channels via Comcast, while residents of Dummerston, Jamaica, Newfane, Putney, and Townshend receive BCTV programming through Southern Vermont Cable. Between the two cable providers, BCTV’s channels reach 6,000 subscriber households.
Besides gavel-to-gavel coverage of selectboard and school board meetings, BCTV’s cameras can be found at community events, lectures and talks, and candidate forums.
BCTV was named winner of the Overall Excellence Award from the Alliance for Community Media in 2016 and again in 2018.
Trowbridge says the money provided by Comcast has helped BCTV upgrade its technology so that the technical quality of programs is on par with those produced by larger broadcasters.
She cited this year’s Representative Town Meeting in Brattleboro as an example.
“It lasted 11 hours, and we had four paid staffers and six volunteers working on the broadcast. We also handled the audio for the meeting,” Trowbridge said.
“We broadcast the meeting and streamed it live online,” she added. “It took thousands of dollars of equipment to be able to produce that program. There’s no way we could do that, or any of the other live programing that we do, if we lost 85 percent of our funding.”
Can viewers pick up the slack?
FACT-TV Executive Director Alex Stradling said that while he hopes the current FCC rules stay unchanged, PEG stations will need “to be more proactive with fundraising and membership drives and be more customer-based and service-driven.”
Stradling said FACT has “already seen a drop in funding, because people are moving away from cable packages and getting just internet services, which is revenue we do not get.”
As more TV viewers reject traditional cable television in favor of streaming programs via broadband internet, Stradling said PEG stations will have to find ways to adapt, like moving toward a membership-funded service.
“I think the best thing people can do is to donate to their local public-access station,” he said. “If they want the meeting coverage and the access to equipment and infrastructure that has been built up over the years, then donating directly to their local public access station is the most effective and direct way to keep it going.”
His other suggestion was for PEG viewers to urge their cable TV provider to keep public-access stations in the channel lineup.
“Calling the cable company and telling them you watch public access, but you like to watch in [high-definition] and asking them when they will provide an HD signal for public access is another way,” he added. “If people call maybe once a week and make these requests, those messages will get to the corporate office quickly.”
Trowbridge agreed with Stradling that cable TV “cord-cutters” are cutting into revenue streams for providers such as Comcast.
However, since Comcast and Southern Vermont Cable are also providers of broadband, those companies can make up the lost cable TV revenue from new accounts for the high-speed internet required for streaming video. Those broadband revenues also don’t have to be used toward funding public-access programming.
Trowbridge said she would support changes to the Cable Communications Act that reflect the current ways people watch television.
“There was no streaming in 1984,” she said. “There was no satellite TV. The Cable Communications Act just focused on cable TV, and it has never been updated to reflect new technologies.”
Trowbridge said if viewers are concerned that the proposed rule change could put PEG stations out of business, they should contact the FCC as soon as possible.
Instructions for filing comments are available at brattleborotv.org. Comments must be filed by Dec. 14 at 11:59 p.m.
“We’re trying to be proactive,” said Trowbridge. “We’re also reaching out to the selectboards in the towns we serve to make them aware of the possible changes, and the ramifications of those changes for covering meetings.”
She said that Vermont’s Congressional delegation is also helping stave off the rule changes. Both of Vermont’s U.S. senators, Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders, have signed onto a letter by Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., to FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, whom President Donald Trump elevated to chairman in 2017.
The Oct. 29 letter objects to the fact that the proposal would “alter, at the cable operators’ discretion, the terms of the local franchise agreements,” thereby putting “at risk critical funding for public, educational, governmental stations, as well as broadband connections to schools and other public buildings.”
U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., also opposes the changes and co-signed a Dec. 5 letter to Pai along with Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, that expressed similar sentiments as those in the Senate letter to the FCC.
The FCC proposal has been the only discordant note on what Trowbridge called “a great year” for BCTV.
“We produced as much content as stations twice our size, and some of our shows are being carried by other public-access stations around the country,” she said of BCTV, which she called “the only television station in town, the only station covering Brattleboro events on a regular basis.”
“We’ve kept up with technology, and we’ve kept growing every year since I’ve been here,” Trowbridge said. “If the FCC makes this change, I don’t know if we can survive.”