BRATTLEBORO—During the first week of March, Brattleboro Community Television (BCTV) staff recorded the annual Town Meetings in seven towns, over two days, producing and broadcasting approximately 40 hours of coverage.
That wasn’t unusual for the public-access channel. What was unusual was that BCTV found itself as an agenda item on several meeting warnings.
This year, the organization, which provides local programming on two channels over two cable networks in Windham County, asked the eight towns it covers to give the equivalent of 85 cents per resident.
Seven of the towns — Putney, Dummerston, Jamaica, Townshend, Newfane, Guilford, and Vernon — have approved the request.
The eighth town, Brattleboro, will vote on the request at its Annual Representative Town Meeting on Saturday, March 23. The Selectboard has voiced its support for both the organization and its funding request.
If Town Meeting members vote in favor, the towns will provide a total of $15,000.
According to a fact sheet prepared by BCTV for voters in the seven towns at Town Meeting, the gavel-to-gavel coverage of key municipal meetings costs an average of $4,300 per town.
The station pro-rated these expenses and sought funding from towns relative to their population, an ask that differs from the nature of requests from nonprofits seeking town funding for their humanitarian services.
“This is not a general request for support, it is payment for a tangible service provided to the Town,” the fact sheet explained.
“Luckily, everybody took it seriously,” Executive Director Cor Trowbridge said. “And they understood the message that this won’t be the last time we’re coming to ask for money.”
Funding from franchise fees
Historically, funding for BCTV — the state’s first public-access station, founded in 1975 — has come through the 1984 Cable Communications Policy Act, said Trowbridge. This act authorized fees on cable companies for their use of the public airwaves.
According to documents from BCTV, these fees “are often described as ‘rent’ for the commercial access and use to the public right of ways within a municipality.”
This money supports public, educational, and governmental (PEG) cable access channels and community media centers around the country.
She said the money will help fill a slow funding decline that has happened as a result of fewer people subscribing to cable TV service, also known as “cable cutting.”
That decline of cable subscriptions — a little over 8 percent, according to BCTV’s 2018 annual report, and as high as 10 percent, as reported to voters on Town Meeting Day — is happening slowly enough for BCTV to budget and plan for, she said.
But a second, larger threat looms over the local-access station’s $300,000 annual budget: a proposed rule change from the Federal Communications Commission that would loosen the definitions and standards surrounding subscriber fees, she said.
Essentially, she said, if enacted as proposed, cable companies would be free to assess their fees in favor of the companies’ bottom lines at the expense of the PEG channels.
Or, as media critic Dan Kennedy writes on wgbh.com, “The rule, pushed by the telecom industry, would allow cable providers to deduct the cost of local programming from the franchising fees they pay to cities and towns.”
‘Go watch the video’
Comcast paid $232,843 in franchise fees during BCTV’s 2018 fiscal year, according to the nonprofit’s most recent annual report; Southern Vermont Cable paid $22,942.
Those fees represented 84 percent of BCTV’s budget last year, according to the annual report.
How much could be deducted from those fees is still a big wildcard.
“We don’t know, and that’s part of the issue,” said BCTV board member Lynn Barrett, who is playing a key role in publicizing the situation.
According to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, the federal agency began the process of reinterpreting the regulations after a decision in a Maryland case by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th circuit.
That court determined “that the terms ‘tax’ and ‘assessment’ can include nonmonetary exactions,” Pai wrote, responding to concerns expressed in a letter from 11 U.S. senators, including Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders from Vermont.
Because the 1984 law caps the franchise fees at 5 percent, and because of legal precedent that puts into play indirect costs involved with funding stations, the FCC must consider the scope of its regulations in this new context, Pai continued.
According to a fact sheet issued by the FCC, the proposed regulations would let cable operators deduct the cost of “cable-related, in-kind contributions” from the customer-paid franchise fees.
These fees have helped public access stations like BCTV offer services such as gavel-to-gavel municipal and school board meeting coverage and distribution of locally produced content such as the recent 500th episode of the St. Michael’s Catholic Church’s weekly Mass, Trowbridge said.
Or citizen-led programs such as Energy Week with George Harvey, which has recently filmed its 300th episode.
Or offer free training in video production to anyone who asks and wants to learn.
Trowbridge said that BCTV’s coverage of ongoing issues such as Act 46 has led to people in meetings telling those new to the issue to “go watch the video” on BCTV for more background information.
The rent money, as it were, has “been our strength,” Trowbridge said of the cable fees. In previous interviews, she has stressed that BCTV has historically functioned as a nonprofit that did not need to ask the community for additional funds.
Finding new revenue streams would have been inevitable with the decline of the cable television subscription base. But the potential FCC regulation change poses an existential threat to the nonprofit’s operations, Trowbridge said.
“It’s important to note that cable companies do not pay franchise or PEG fees,” a recent posting from BCTV told viewers on the channel’s website. “These fees are paid by cable subscribers and merely pass through the cable companies to the cities and nonprofits.”
The BCTV post continued, “The new FCC rulemaking will not change the amount currently charged to cable subscribers, it merely allows cable companies to keep this money.”
Trowbridge said this rule change could go into effect as soon as this fall.
Higher user fees could reduce public access
If BCTV does lose the bulk of its funding, it may also lose a central part of its mission: public access.
According to Trowbridge, public-access channels were created as “a free-speech vehicle” to ensure every resident had access to television as a means of communication.
Trowbridge said that this mission of supporting free speech is the foundation of the services BCTV provides.
She said her role as executive director is opposite that of a television executive charged with finding the next money-making show.
“My opinion doesn’t matter,” Trowbridge said. “My job is to make sure the door is open for you.”
If the station loses its funding, Trowbridge added, then it might need to shift to a fee-for-service model. Trowbridge worries that this type of model would reduce the community’s ability to participate in content creation.
For example, under the full-funding structure authorized by the 1984 statute, if a community organization asks BCTV to film an event, the organization can send a person to the station to receive equipment training, which can cost the organization up to $20. Alternatively, the organization can pay $100 for BCTV staff to film the event.
In either scenario, Trowbridge said, these user fees don’t cover all the station’s expenses such as staff time or overhead. The franchise fees underwrite most of the station’s costs, she said.
Station urges activism
Trowbridge urged people who wish to see the PEG funding preserved to express their views to Vermont’s federal delegation: Leahy, Sanders, and U.S. Rep. Peter Welch.
The lawmakers already support preserving the funding, she said, but they can get increasing traction on the issue as they hear from more constituents.
“Even though Senators Leahy and Sanders and Representative Welch have submitted letters to the FCC in opposition to the Rulemaking, the more they hear from their constituents on this issue, the more they will prioritize it in their busy schedules,” wrote BCTV staff and board members in a recent newsletter. “Rep. Welch is on the House Subcommittee for Communications and Technology, which oversees the FCC and is in a particularly key position to make a difference.”
BCTV also has two petitions that people can sign as a strategy to communicate community support to the FCC and to attract national media attention.
According to Trowbridge, many smaller, more local media outlets have covered the issue, but not so much at the national level.
In a recent newsletter, BCTV staff and board wrote, “BCTV’s board of directors put together a petition on Change.org to fill [FCC] Chairman Ajit Pai’s inbox with opposition to the proposed Rulemaking that would eliminate the funding that community media centers rely on to provide coverage of local meetings and events, and to support and train community producers in the towns we serve.”
Another petition — at www.petition2congress.com/ctas/stop-fcc-from-defunding-peg-channels — launched by the Alliance for Community Media, a trade organization representing public-access stations nationwide, will go directly to Congress.
Meanwhile, Trowbridge and the staff at BCTV are gearing up to provide coverage of Brattleboro’s Representative Town Meeting on March 23. Trowbridge said the meeting will be broadcast over Facebook Live.
Trowbridge is concerned that if the station is forced to absorb significant budget cuts, the opportunities for community members will diminish.
That would compromise citizens’ equal access to the information and medium regardless of their political perspective or ability to pay, she said.
“It goes against the principles of public access,” she said.