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‘These channels are us’

A Legislative committee studying public-access cable submits proposal for upcoming session to explore funding community-access video as customers abandon cable

BRATTLEBORO—A study committee has recommended the state hire a consultant to investigate how to best fund public-access media organizations.

PEG (public, education, and government) channels have seen their funding dwindle in recent years due to the number of people switching from cable television to more internet-based streaming or on-demand services.

Additional changes at the federal level will likely cause these channels to lose significant portions of their funding.

As a result of these funding threats, the Legislature established the PEG Access Study Committee to investigate sustainable funding models.

After several meetings, the committee submitted a proposal to the Legislature on Nov. 6.

For Senate Majority Leader Becca Balint, D-Windham, working on the study group and taking testimony over the summer and fall reinforced the concept that “PEG channels are key to democratic participation and engagement.”

The Brattleboro senator is chair of the committee, and she said she felt struck by the core values of free speech, public access to information, and sharing local perspectives held by all the people who worked at PEG stations statewide.

They all want to support a strong local flavor, local view, and local perspective, she said.

Brattleboro Community Television (BCTV) and Falls Area Community TV (FACT-TV) in Bellows Falls are two such stations in Windham County.

Municipal and school groups also spoke to the committee about how important the PEG channels are for them to get information out to their communities.

Balint said that she and the committee vice-chair, Rep. Michael Yantachka, D-Charlotte, will submit companion bills to their respective committees once the lawmakers return to Montpelier in January.

From there, the proposal will move through the legislative process.

“I don’t think it will be a heavy lift,” she said.

The source of the funding to hire a consultant is to be determined, said Balint. The study group felt more comfortable with having the House and Senate appropriations committees determine the amount and origin of funding, rather than suggesting a dollar amount on their own, she added.

The regulatory landscape surrounding telecommunications is rocky, Balint added. Figuring out what authority the state had to enact fees or other funding mechanisms on telecommunications companies would have taken more work than the study group could achieve in its proscribed six meetings.

This is why the proposal calls for funding a professional to consult with the state rather than a series of funding models, she said.

PEG television ‘extends the concept of participatory democracy’

The Senate Finance Committee formed the study group earlier this year in response to rule changes by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that would allow the commercial broadcast companies to keep more of customer-paid franchise fees, ostensibly to compensate for the value of the services and equipment provided to the PEG stations.

According to the study committee’s proposal, 25 PEG stations — also called access management organizations (AMOs) — serve Vermont.

These public-access stations provide a variety of services, from gavel-to-gavel coverage of municipal meetings, to community education programs, to space for individuals to create and produce local programming.

In its proposal, the committee wrote, “PEG access television extends the concept of participatory democracy by providing not only a window to State and local government proceedings but also a forum for citizens to voice their viewpoints and opportunities for life-long learning and cultural exchange.”

Under the proposal, the Joint Fiscal Committee will contract with independent consultants to evaluate funding models and funding streams to ensure PEG Chanels will have a sustainable source of money. The proposal includes considering a potential assessment on communication providers “based on their use of public rights-of-way.”

The consultant will examine to what extent, if at all, the state can assess fees on telecommunications companies under state and federal law. Historically, only television companies have paid fees that supported PEG channels.

The proposal also asks the consultant to consider including all forms of communication — for example, telephone, television, and internet. Right now the fees are only levied on cable television.

The consultant would also visit the state’s PEG access centers to explore opportunities for cost savings or other efficiencies.

“The report may include draft legislation implementing the proposal that represents the most equitable means of extracting the greatest public benefit for Vermonters from commercial services or from the commercial use of public rights-of-way,” wrote the committee in its proposal.

A report from the consultant is due to the Senate Committee on Finance and the House Committees on Energy and Technology and on Ways and Means on or before Jan. 1, 2021.

“PEG channels have so many champions in the Legislature” because we realize that is such a “vital service” to Vermonters, Balint said.

She cautioned, however, that the state’s attempts to develop other funding models is not a cure-all for an ever-changing telecommunications industry.

PEG channels “will need to get more creative and nimble long-term” because how we consume media is constantly changing, she said.

Possibilities to partner with state?

The five-page document also outlines a potential partnership between the PEG centers and the state with an eye to increasing public participation in state proceedings such as providing public testimony.

Such a partnership, if found feasible, would be for the PEG stations to “coordinate, develop, maintain, and expand the delivery of statewide videoconferencing services.”

The secretary of digital services would investigate the potential PEG/state partnership in collaboration with the commissioner of buildings and general services, the commissioner of public service, and the Legislative Information Technology Committee.

This work is due to the Legislature by January 2021.

The seven-member committee included representatives from the Legislature, PEG stations, the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, and commercial broadcast networks.

Historically, television companies have paid to build and use infrastructure — such as telephone poles on the public rights-of-way. The new FCC rule will allow the companies to keep more of that money. This could mean huge budget cuts for stations such as BCTV.

There’s still a lot at the federal level that’s up in the air, Balint said.

For BCTV, measures to ‘future proof’ the station

Earlier this year, BCTV took several steps to — as BCTV Executive Director Cor Trowbridge described it — “future proof” the station.

For the first time in the station’s history, BCTV asked for and secured a total of $15,000 from the eight selectboards for which the organization routinely provides gavel-to-gavel meeting coverage.

The station also changed its membership fee structure.

Because so many Windham County residents find out what’s going on in their local towns through BCTV, Balint said, that connection is essential.

Without the municipal meeting coverage that BCTV provides, or links to events, communities would lose a direct tie to municipal and educational information, she warned.

“There’s also a ton of fun stuff” on PEG channels, she said. “That’s why people love them so much.”

“Essentially, these channels are us,” Balint said. “They convey all the different facts of our community.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #537 (Wednesday, November 20, 2019). This story appeared on page A1.

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