BOSTON — A proposed federal rule expected to take effect next month could drastically cut funding for community cable television stations, possibly forcing some of them off the air.
Local access stations get a percentage of their revenue from cable companies, which are required by law to give up to 5 percent of their gross income to support public access.
Under the Federal Communication Commission’s proposed rule, cable providers like Comcast and Verizon could deduct so-called “in-kind” costs — such as the value of local access channels — from franchise fees that are paid to cities and towns. If those fees are substantially reduced, financial support from municipalities for public access stations could dry up.
Erich Archer, executive director of 1623 Studios in Cape Ann, said the changes would translate to drastic cuts in funding for local public, educational and government programming.
“It has the potential to completely wipe us out,” he said. “If that happens, the communities that we represent would lose a vital, hyper-local information resource.”
The station, which serves Gloucester, Rockport, Essex and Manchester, provides coverage of municipal meetings, school events and youth sports. It also offers educational programs. It also beat out major networks to win a New England Emmy last year for an episode of the CATV’s original series “On the Waterfront.”
Archer said cable companies have marginalized local cable stations, putting them in a higher, less visible tier in channel lineups and not listing their content in program guides.
“They’ve been chipping away at this issue for long time,” he said. “They are obligated to fund us, but they would rather not.”
‘The last outlet’
Darlene Beal, executive director of Haverhill Community Media, said the rule change would dig deep into her $900,000 operating budget, lopping off about 20 percent to 35 percent.
“It would be a huge cut,” she said. “We’re looking at our budget, reviewing the programs and services that we deliver and figuring out how we are going to weather this storm.”
Beal said she hopes that the FCC will understand the potential impact of the rule change on communities such as Haverhill that depend on the programming.
“We’re hoping for the best but believe that it probably will go through, which is unfortunate,” Beal said. “Hopefully, it will be overturned on appeal.”
Municipal associations and other groups have flooded the FCC with letters warning them about the detrimental effects of such a decision.
“We are the last outlet for youth sports, government meetings and other local programming,” said Melinda Garfield, president of MassAccess, a nonprofit trade group representing about 200 community media stations in Massachusetts. “So this would be absolutely devastating to the communities that these stations serve.”
If the rule goes through, she said some stations might be absorbed by local governments, but many others will be forced the close their doors.
Representatives of Verizon and Comcast declined to comment on the proposed rule change.
In a filings to the FCC in support of the change, Verizon argues that “excessive and burdensome demands for cable-related, in-kind contributions (for example, discounted or free video services to local governments)” hurts consumers by discouraging new companies from entering the cable market and existing companies from renewing franchise agreements.
“The commission’s proposal to count cable-related in-kind contributions as part of the statutory cap on franchise fees will help keep in check consumer video prices by limiting the costs and fees imposed on cable operators,” the company wrote.
Conservative groups such as the Washington D.C.-based Citizens Against Government Waste have lobbied for the changes, arguing that the franchise fees drive up cable bills.
“These costs are being passed onto consumers,” said Deborah Collier, the group’s director of technology and telecommunications policy. “And not everyone watches these channels.”
She said many communities are “unfairly” charging above the 5 percent fee allowed under federal regulations, in some cases using licensing agreements to bolster municipal coffers.
“These in-kind contributions are what the FCC is seeking to address,” she said. “But I really don’t know that it’s this doomsday scenario everyone is making it out to be.”
‘Platform for local voices’
Massachusetts Sens. Edward Markey and Elizabeth Warren recently sent a letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai urging him to reconsider the rule change.
“In an era of media globalization and consolidation, (local cable) access stations continue to give viewers critical information about their communities and offer an important platform for local voices,” read the letter, which was signed by several lawmakers. “They catalyze civic engagement and they provide invaluable educational services.”
Archer said cutting funding to local stations would eliminate one of the few remaining non-commercial free-speech media platforms on cable TV.
“This is a model that has been working for three decades and something that communities need,” he said. “Corporate greed shouldn’t be allowed to come in and take that away.”
The FCC is accepting public comment on the proposed rule change until Dec. 14. Comments can be submitted here: https://www.fcc.gov/ecfs/filings
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.