Public-access stations gird for massive funding loss
The editing area at Channel 17/Town Meeting Television in Burlington.

Public-access stations gird for massive funding loss

A legislative committee will explore sustainability of public access television stations bracing for the impact of a potential catastrophic loss of cable franchise money

BRATTLEBORO — Uncertainty still hangs over the heads of community access television stations, as a change at the federal level could significantly lower the stream of funding from the primary source that has kept stations like Brattleboro Community Television (BCTV) and Falls Area Cable Television (FACT) solvent for decades.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is nearing the conclusion of a process expected to reduce franchise fees that public, education, governmental stations (PEGs) receive from cable companies.

These community television stations are proactively seeking new funding models. At the same time, the state has created a study group to investigate potential regulatory and funding mechanisms to support these broadcast sources of public information and access.

Still, to some long-time activists, the FCC's rule change raises bigger issues around state's rights and the public's right to know.

Franchise fees in place since 1984

First, a PEG funding recap:

Last year, news broke that the FCC would consider a change to its rule-making process that could alter the amount of funding that PEG stations receive from cable companies.

This process is nearing its conclusion and expected to conclude this summer.

Historically, funding for channels like BCTV - the state's first public-access station, founded in 1975 - has come through the 1984 Cable Communications Policy Act.

This act authorized fees on cable companies for their use of the public infrastructure. Currently, those fees are assessed on subscribers and are paid in full to the television stations and media centers.

Franchise fees are paid to local governments as compensation for our use of the public rights-of-way and easements,” explains cable giant Comcast on its website.

But the new FCC interpretation proposes to give cable providers a cut of those fees.

As FACT Executive Director Alex Stradling understands the situation, if the rules change happens as proposed, then cable companies will have the option to denote the amount it costs for them to maintain PEG access as an “in kind” service. The companies can then deduct that amount from what it provides to PEG stations.

The change in franchise fees is not the only threat PEG stations have faced in recent years. As fewer people subscribe to cable TV service in favor of streaming program services from the internet, the overall amount of available subscriber fees has also declined proportionally.

BCTV Executive Director Cor Trowbridge has told The Commons in previous interviews that the station can plan for a steady decline due to “cable cutting.”

The station covers meetings in Brattleboro, Guilford, and Vernon, which are served by Comcast, and Dummerston, Putney, Newfane, Townshend, and Jamaica, which are served by Southern Vermont Cable.

According to the organization's 2018 annual report, BCTV lost a little over 8 percent of its funding from Comcast franchise fees between 2017 and 2018, though revenue from Southern Vermont Cable franchise fees actually increased by 6.7 percent.

But the proposed rule changes would loosen the definitions and standards surrounding subscriber fees, representing a permanent across-the-board decline in funding for PEG stations.

BCTV introduces new fees

In response, BCTV and its board held a public meeting last month to discuss “future proofing” the station's funding model.

Trowbridge has outlined a number of fees the station started charging as of July 1 to offset potential lost revenue. She described these fees as “a starting point” that can change in response to the FCC's rulemaking.

For example, individuals have paid $20 a year to become members of BCTV, which permits them to borrow professional-grade broadcasting equipment. Students and seniors have paid $10, and dues for organizations have been based on the number of employees.

Going forward, memberships will range from $15 for students and those under the age of 26. Individuals will pay $25.

The station will offer subscription packages for community members who want to produce programing for the station based on how much staff time and equipment is needed.

Prior to developing the new fee structure, BCTV secured $15,000 from the towns for which the organization officially provides gavel-to-gavel meeting coverage, via requests at the Annual Town Meetings of the eight municipalities this past March.

Trowbridge has also said that traditional fundraising is an option for BCTV. But, she added, that would add another nonprofit competing with other worthy nonprofits for funding in the region.

Losing consistency as well as access?

The biggest issue that FACT Executive Director Alex Stradling is trying to prepare for? Uncertainty.

FACT in Bellows Falls could potentially see a budget cut of 30 to 40 percent, Stradling said. A decrease in the cable funding would mean a loss of programing for the local community, he added.

“So there's a lot of questions for us,” he said.

In FACT's case, the station's annual budget averages $140,000. Approximately $127,000 comes from the cable companies ($119,000 a year from Comcast and $8,000 from VTel).

FACT employs two full-time staff members. The funding loss would require cutting one of the positions, he said.

Stradling said it would also mean that FACT would probably cut back on its filming of municipal meetings in its coverage area: Athens, Bellows Falls, Brookline, Cambridgeport, Grafton, North Walpole, N.H., Rockingham, and Westminster.

The station also produces between four and seven shows a week in conjunction with community members. Those shows might go away because the community producers wouldn't have the full-time staff to assist with production, he continued.

Yes, the station could transition to an all-volunteer base, he added. But it's likely that consistency would suffer, or that the station would need to start charging for more of its services.

Stradling said the town officials in the station's coverage area understand the situation. He added that he is waiting to conduct deeper conversations until he has more answers from the FCC.

He also said he expects to replace the cable funding with fundraising. If 250 people gave $10 a month, it would offset the projected loss in cable franchise fees, he said.

“We need support,” Stradling said.

In his opinion, back in 1984, the telecommunications legislation created a deal for the cable companies: they would funnel money to PEG channels in return for using public infrastructure, such as telephone poles.

“Here in Vermont, we've kept up on that deal,” Stradling said.

In his view, however, the cable companies haven't always taken a positive view of the situation.

“They don't see us as a value,” Stradling said. “They see us as a weight.”

One value of PEG stations: gavel-to-gavel meeting coverage keeps public government transparent, he continued.

The coverage is presented as it happens to the community without editorializing. This way, members of the public can directly witness their public officials' decisions, comments, and behaviors. Such broadcasts cut down on rumors, assumptions, and conspiracy theories, he said.

“It helps people feel they can better trust their government,” Stradling said.

As an example, he pointed to an incident five years ago where a member of the public called the station, charging that they were being bullied at the town's meetings. (Stradling declined to say which town or use any names.)

FACT started filming the meetings, he said, and the negative behavior stopped.

“It's not as entertaining,” he joked. “We're like the library of public meetings.”

More broadly, Stradling said, PEG stations exist to give everyone access to the television sphere.

It's no-cost free speech, he said.

According to him, many of the professionals working in the broadcast field were first bit by the media bug at a PEG station.

“So we provide the space for inspiration,” he said. “We provide the place for experimentation.”

At the state level

The Legislature took measures as part of this session's telecommunications bill to study alternative regulations and funding mechanisms in hopes of making PEG channels sustainable.

Senate Majority Leader Becca Balint, D-Windham, helped amend the original bill to create the study committee investigating the issue. She is also the committee's chair.

As a result, the Senate Finance Committee created the committee, which will meet this summer and fall.

The committee is tasked with holding six meetings, one of them a public hearing. It has also reserved time at the top of all meetings for public comment.

The group will dig into the questions of what sustainable funding looks like for these channels and what the state's role should be in their solvency.

The committee includes lawmakers, state employees, the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, and representatives from the PEG channels and cable companies, said Balint.

Balint said the committee will examine “alternative regulatory and funding mechanisms we can employ to support these channels” and to determine how best the state's federal delegation - Sens. Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders and Rep. Peter Welch - should address the situation in Washington.

Balint said the committee will also explore changes at the state level “to make sure there are viable streams of income.”

The alternatives may go beyond cable companies, she noted, as many people access PEG content through the internet.

Balint - who jokes she was named the committee chair because everyone else yelled “not it!” - does not view herself as the resident expert, but as the shepherd charged with getting as many voices as possible to the table.

“What I want at the end is a roadmap for how we're going to save these channels,” she said. “We realize that, if the FCC goes ahead with its rule change, that we have an existential crisis on our hands for so many of these PEG channels.”

Balint said many folks in Windham County find out what's going on in their local towns through BCTV. Without that connection to the municipal meeting coverage that BCTV provides or links to events, communities would lose one of their direct ties to municipal and educational information.

She believes that PEG channels are fundamental to the state's healthy democracy and that access is not just about consuming information but also about generating information.

“We can't have a true democracy if we don't have an educated citizenry,” she said.

Loss of a quid pro quo

For Lauren-Glenn Davitian, the executive director of Channel 17/Town Meeting Television and CCTV Center for Media & Democracy based in Burlington, the cable companies' strategy of keeping more of their subscribers' fees as profits speaks to states' jurisdictions as much as it does free speech.

Vermont has always maintained that PEG channels are a public good, said Davitian, describing the creation of PEGs as a quid pro quo between cable companies and governments to use the public rights of way.

In other words, the telephone poles and land that cable companies use for private enterprise are considered public property.

Traditionally, the concept has been that the “franchise” that owns a public area - in Vermont's case, that's the state - can divert private resources toward the public good, in this case fees paid by the cable companies.

In Vermont, cable companies must receive a Certificate of Public Good from the Public Utility Commission to operate.

Davitian points to an example from the early 20th century, when Theodore Vail - founder of American Telephone and Telegraph - wanted to create a national telephone monopoly. The federal government OK'd this arrangement on the condition that the company provide universal service to all households in the country.

Today, the Universal Service Fund subsidizes service to people who are income-eligible and underwrites the cost to providers of rural telecommunications in areas that would otherwise not be economically viable.

The Vermont Universal Service Fund was established in 1994 to create a “financial structure that will allow every Vermont household to obtain basic telecommunications service at an affordable price,” according to the website of the state Department of Public Service.

Davitian said Channel 17 proposed three questions to the Legislature as the body considered policy around PEG channels, a process that led to the creation of the study committee.

First, said Davitian, does the state still support PEG as a public good? Are there alternative funding streams? And finally, a perhaps overlooked issue: What does the plight of PEG channels mean for the state's long-term ability to manage - and benefit from - the commercial use of its rights of way?

“These threats are fundamentally a threat to states' quid pro quo,” she said.

A graduate and anthropologist from the University of Vermont, Davitian started her career in television as a documentary filmmaker. She quickly became an activist.

In 1984, she learned that a funding mechanism for PEG channels existed in the 1984 federal Cable Communications Policy Act.

At the time, 50 cable companies operated in Vermont. Davitian said asked her local cable company for the money. In short, the company laughed.

Davitian then took the largest cable company at the time, Cox Cable, in front of what was then the Public Service Board. According to Davitian, the case was the first citizen-activist-led lawsuit brought against a company to appear before the PSB.

The citizens won.

Vermont's network of 25 centers, which now operate 75 PEG channels, grew from there. According to Davitian, these channels provide 18,000 local program hours a year and receive approximately $8 million from cable subscribers.

Davitian said CCTV received early support in the 1980s from Burlington's then-mayor, Bernie Sanders.

How the channels deliver their services and engage with their communities has evolved to include the internet and other digital services, Davitian said. The roles these channels play in their communities, however, has remained constant for more than three decades.

The government side of PEG channels “opens doors to local government,” so citizens and leaders can speak directly to one another, said Davitian.

On the education side, they are an “adjunct to the public education system,” providing community members with lifelong learning opportunities, she said.

In Davitian's opinion, the channels also supplement public schools' budgets by providing workshops and other digital-media-literacy education to students.

“The need for media literacy is greater than ever,” Davitian said.

She likened PEG stations to libraries and similar civic institutions. Even if people don't regularly use a library, the studies Davitian has read point to a direct line between libraries, civic engagement, and active and informed voters.

She bristles at the mention of other digital platforms such as YouTube or Facebook as free platforms for free expression, which, she asserts, do not replace the work or service of PEG stations.

Ultimately, these platforms are commercial entities set on “aggregating eyeballs” and collecting users' data.

“They aren't free,” she said.

If the PEG broadcasting community and those who care about freedom of expression don't remain “vigilant and active,” then the door to free speech and expression will eventually close, Davitian said.

“PEG is a foot in the door that is shutting,” she said.

Other digital platforms use their commercial user agreements to “exploit” the content people produce and use it to increase their “eyeball base” and to farm data gleaned to track users' behavior and target advertising “to exploit their belief systems,” Davitian said.

Content created for PEG stations, in contrast, is non-commercial and controlled by the community.

“That's why it's so vital at this time” that people support PEG stations, said Davitian. Fundamentally, she said, the cable funding issue is about the right to free expression and that if society loses this right, it won't get it back.

She describes a PEG channel as a “non-commercial, hyperlocal platform” that operates as a community center, she said, creating space for people of differing views and opinions to co-exist.

Such spaces are becoming more important than ever, as communities have become more polarized, Davitian added.

“Our job is to make sure the public good is being served,” she said.

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