Proposed FCC Rule Could End Public Access TV In 5 Towns

Source: CATV screen shot

Hartland, Hartford, Hanover, Lebanon and Norwich impacted

Norwich and four other Upper Valley towns could lose their public access television if Comcast and other cable TV companies have their way before the FCC.  The situation impacts the 25 independent, non-profit Public, Educational, and Governmental (PEG) Access Centers in Vermont as well as those across the United States. 

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Executive Director Donna Girot is not sanguine about the fate of Community Access Television Inc. (CATV), the PEG center that provides hyperlocal programing to Hartland, Hartford, Hanover, Lebanon and Norwich. She told the Norwich Selectboard at a budget meeting that 2019 "might be our last year of existence."  To make sure it can cover Norwich Selectboard and School Board meetings  to the end of 2019, CATV is seeking $3000 from Norwich voters at Town Meeting this year. 

CATV covers government meetings and local events and also has studio space allowing community members to produce shows that air on CATV. For a sampling of available content, go to CATV's home page at http://catv8.org/    Content is available on Comcast’s public access channels or via CATV's website. 

Funding for CATV comes almost exclusively from 'franchise fees' paid by Comcast, as it is the local cable provider.

Source: 2017 Annual Report for Community Access Television Inc.

These fees are authorized by the federal Cable Act of 1984 and are collected to fund public access stations in Vermont and across the country. See Will the FCC pull the plug on public-access TV? published in The Commons (Windham County).

The franchise fees are payment in part for using the State’s right-of-ways to string cable wires.  As part of the Cable Act of 1984, cable companies are also required to provide 'in-kind services', such as free cable to schools or interactive programing guides. 

The proposed FCC rule, Docket 05-311, would allow cable companies to offset those in-kind services against the franchise fees, tremendously reducing funding for public access TV.  That could mean the end for public access stations across the country that rely primarily on franchise fees to cover costs.  See The FCC's Actions Will Threaten Our Future at Vermont Access Network, the membership organization for the Vermont’s 25 public access TV centers.   

Source: Vermont Access Network FCC 05-311 Fact Sheet

According to a December VTDigger article, "supporters of the [FCC rule]  change include groups like Council for Citizens for Against Public Waste, which filed a letter with the FCC in September saying that by requiring cable companies to offer access to the PEG channels, the commission was stifling competition and raising prices for consumers." 

That might be true in a narrow sense. A broader outlook may make better sense. The Cable Act of 1984 strikes a “delicate balance between the FCC, local governments, and marketplace competition,” quotes Wikipedia. If that be the case, then perhaps local governments deserve something back for changing the delicate balance. I don't know. 

In  a filing with the FCC, Vermont Access Network  said:  "By defining “franchise fee” in an overly broad fashion to include “in-kind” support, the FCC’s proposals will shift the fair balance between cable franchising authorities and cable operators and will force communities to choose between franchise fees and PEG channels – something that was never the intent of the Act." 

A decision from the FCC "may happen by June 2019" said Ms. Girot in an email.  Outreach by the Vermont Access Network to the House Oversight Committee is planned to pressure the FCC.   

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POSTED: 02.02.2019 

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