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BCTV, Southern Vermont Cable reach agreement on public access programming

BRATTLEBORO—Brattleboro Community Television (BCTV) and Southern Vermont Cable Co. (SVC) announced on Friday the signing of a contract that designates BCTV as the public access television provider for the towns of Dummerston, Jamaica, Newfane, Putney, and Townshend for the next eight years.

With the signing of the contract, BCTV, Vermont’s oldest public access station, will bring its two channels, programs, and facilities to an expanded area within Windham County.

Later this spring, SVC subscribers will find BCTV’s Channel 10 on their channel lineup, in addition to BCTV’s Channel 8, which they’ve received for the past 10 years. Channel 10 contains educational programming, such as BUHS-TV, as well as local and state government programming.

Residents of these towns will also be able to use the video production facilities, equipment, and studios of BCTV in the Municipal Center in Brattleboro.

Moving forward

The new agreement brings a positive twist to an acrimonious interlude in the relationship between the two entities.

For more than 10 years, BCTV has been providing public, educational, and government (PEG) access programming for Southern Vermont Cable. Cable operators are required to offer PEG programming and studio access as a condition of receiving a Certificate of Public Good (CPG) from the state Public Service Board (PSB).

However, there had never been a formal agreement between BCTV and SVC. 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.

But last year, a dispute arose over who would pay for providing BCTV’s service — in particular, who would cover the cost of adding Channel 10 to the SVC lineup. Comcast customers in Brattleboro, Vernon, and Guilford pay a 0.5 percent surcharge on the cable television portion of their monthly bills, and BCTV maintained that these customers are picking up a disproportionate amount of the operational funding of the station’s content, while SVC subscribers do not.

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

In a PSB status conference on Nov. 17, SVC sought permission to amend its CPG renewal to exclude BCTV from its public access plan and also sought an exemption to the PEG rule because it has a small subscriber base — roughly 1,700, according to the PSB.

BCTV strongly opposed all of SVC’s motions.

The cable company’s CPG was set to expire on Jan. 31, but in a procedural order written Jan. 28, the  PSB granted a six-month extension after it was determined that the dispute between SVC and BCTV could not be quickly resolved.

The PSB also rejected SVC’s request to limit BCTV’s participation in the renewal hearings.

In the order, PSB hearing officer John Bentley chided SVC for not having “an actual plan for how it intends to meet ‘the cable-related community needs and interests of its service territory,’ not merely an expression of an intent to formulate a plan in the future. That was the scheme adopted in the now-expiring Certificate of Public Good and it does not seem, from the pleadings and from the comments at the public hearing, that it has produced a satisfactory result.”

A public hearing on SVC’s amended CPG application is scheduled for this week, with pre-filed testimony by the state Department of Public Service and BCTV to be submitted by March 25. A technical hearing is set for the week of April 18, and briefs must be filed by June 3.

BCTV pleased

“We are happy to be partnering with Southern Vermont Cable to bring high quality local programming to its cable subscribers,” said Cor Trowbridge, executive director of BCTV. “This expansion, coupled with our recently concluded contract with Comcast, assures BCTV’s ongoing presence in the greater Brattleboro area and makes BCTV a central resource for a large part of Windham County.”

“I’m really happy our staff will be able to concentrate on more positive things, like a new website, and less on contract negotiations for a while,” said BCTV Vice President Tim Wessel.

Scialabba confirmed on Saturday that an agreement was reached, but declined to comment further.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #91 (Wednesday, March 9, 2011).

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