Selectboard chairwoman Elaine Haney earlier this month called on Vermont legislators to explore new funding streams for public access television stations in light of a new federal rule that could jeopardize a vital source of revenue.
Haney is the chair of the CCTV Center for Media & Democracy, which runs the government access station Channel 17, broadcasting hundreds of hours of municipal meetings, election coverage and community events each month, including most meetings here. Essex is also served by the Regional Educational Television Network, which covers local school board meetings.
Testifying before the Public Education and Government Access Study Group on October 21, Haney urged lawmakers to consider ways they can help community media centers withstand a recent federal rule change that could drastically undercut their operating budgets.
“We really need to put our money where our mouth is and provide funding for this,” Haney told the Reporter last week, “because it’s too important not to.”
Advocates of public access stations like Haney say the services allow people to stay updated and engaged in local government whenever they are prevented from attending meetings in person, whether because of busy schedules or disabilities. For towns without local newspapers, public access television can sometimes be the only way to know what’s going on in the community.
But a recent rule change by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission has threatened to undercut the vital services, advocates say. In August, the FCC voted 3-2 to limit the benefits communities can receive from the cable companies’ use of public property and right of way. The rule change will allow corporations to deduct the estimated costs of “in-kind services,” like free service to schools and municipal buildings, from a required 5 percent franchise fee paid to the state.
Public access organizations decried the ruling as the federal government giving cable companies yet another a free pass at the expense of the local stations.
“In effect, the cable companies will be allowed to pay their rent for use of public lands with ‘in-kind’ donations, and the local governments will have no say in whether this is acceptable or not,” wrote the Vermont Access Network in a blog post. VAN represents the state’s 25 public access media centers.
Kevin Christopher, VAN’s president and head of the Colchester-based Lake Champlain Access Television, said in a press release that Vermont companies won’t know the impact of the ruling until cable companies show how they will interpret the order.
But Christopher said access media centers need to prepare for “dramatic shifts in funding and operation.”
“It’s especially discouraging that the FCC is preempting local control at a time when local media is more important than ever to the fabric of our communities,” Christopher said in the release. “The state of Vermont decided long ago that community media centers were essential to democracy, part of the public good, and should be supported.”
FCC chairman Ajit Pai has argued the changes would help free up money at cable companies for extending services into rural America, writing in a blog post that “excessive fees and inappropriate regulations” by local governments has deterred the growth of broadband services.
“Every dollar paid in excessive fees is a dollar that by definition cannot and will not be invested in upgrading and expanding networks,” Pai said in a statement.
The fee change isn’t the first funding cut experienced by stations. Last year, the FCC gave cable companies permission to alter their accounting practices to change the way they account for bundled services, impacting the final dollar tally on which payments to states are based. For Channel 17, the shift resulted in a $50,000 shortfall last year.
The fiscal impacts of the new fee rule could be even more drastic. According to Haney, Channel 17 receives about $425,000 from Comcast and $35,000 or so from Burlington Telecom in franchise fees — well over half of the station’s $700,000 operating budget.
One potential answer could be to raise the amount of funding kicked in by communities the station serves. But Haney said covering losses from a complete funding cut would require a 400 percent increase from each community.
She said a more feasible approach is to diversify funding sources to include a mix of local and state government contributions. There’s also a user-based-fee model out of Virginia, she said, that allows municipalities to charge cable companies for cable and utility lines that run through public right-of-ways.
But perhaps most important is encouraging viewers to donate to their local stations, Haney said.
“Because PEG access has been considered an arm of the government in a way for a long time, people haven’t looked at it as a source that they have to pay for personally,” Haney said. “We need to look at philanthropy to bolster our resources, because we can’t depend on one [funding source].”