FCC proposal could hurt BCTV's bottom line

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BRATTLEBORO — Public access stations around the country and in Vermont are facing an uncertain future following a proposal by the Federal Communications Commission that would change the way subscriber fees are collected to fund programming and broadcast services.

On Sept. 25, the FCC issued proposed rulemaking — Docket 05-311 — which, if successful, could allow cable operators to reclassify certain in-kind services and subtract their monetary value from the 5 percent that cable companies are required to pay to fund public access stations.

"It's conceivable that BCTV's operating funds could be eliminated," said Brattleboro Community TV Executive Director Cor Trowbridge. "BCTV and similar public access stations nationwide could cease to exist."

Specifically, the proposed FCC rulemaking will allow cable companies to assess the value for in-kind services related to providing public, educational, and government access channels and deduct that amount from the franchise fees passed to municipalities and nonprofits like BCTV.

In-kind costs can include the value of the cable channels themselves as well as any other services provided. However, the FCC ruling fails to set any guidelines or limitations to the values that cable companies can assess.

According to an FCC news release, its stated objective is to "reduce barriers to infrastructure investment."

That's nothing but code words for deregulation, said Trowbridge.

"I see this like net neutrality," she said. "It's just deregulation. Companies are going to act in their own self interest unless they are forced to do something in the public's interest. That is the purpose of government, but that's not how the political wind is blowing right now."

Trowbridge noted that the information and programming BCTV and other public access television stations are offering is unmediated by commentary or talking heads and pundits. "We're not spinning the information. We are not even putting it in context. You are free to think what you want."

The franchise fee and the in-kind services cable companies are required to provide mean BCTV can supply programming at no cost to municipalities.

"Your subscriber fees support the station. In exchange, you get your select board meetings covered and your town meetings covered."

In addition, town residents also have access to equipment to produce their own programs.

However, noted Trowbridge, if the FCC proposal is enacted, that will all change. "Towns might have to make a decision over whether to directly fund this service or lose it," she said.

Typically, when a cable operator enters into a franchise agreement with a state or municipality — known as a Certificate of Public Good in Vermont — that agreement requires the operator to provide certain items and services in exchange for the use of public rights-of-way to conduct business. These obligations can include but are not limited to complementary cable and Internet access to schools, libraries, and municipal buildings. Cable companies are also required to facilitate the broadcast of television signals from remote locations and give access to an interactive programming guide.

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The rulemaking would allow cable operators to charge the "expense" of these obligations back against the funding the PEG providers receive to operate.

Trowbridge said charging back these in-kind items and services against the funding goes against the spirit of Cable Act of 1984, which protects access television nationwide.

"Essentially, this FCC action could mean the end of access television in many communities in the state and across the country and the end of one of the last forms of local, accessible, and free media that we possess," according to a statement from BCTV, which has been in operation since 1976.

"The future of public access is uncertain and with it a critical venue for the people and communities to participate in our democracy," adds Trowbridge.

In the past few years, BCTV's budget, which is funded 85 percent by the subscriber fees, has hovered around $300,000. Trowbridge told the Reformer that due to people switching from cable TV to getting programming directly from the internet — cord cutters — BCTV lost $20,000 in this year's budget.

"We can tighten our belts," she said, but any further cuts would seriously hamper the ability of BCTV to provide programming.

Trowbridge and other station managers are calling on supporters to file comments with the FCC expressing opposition to the proposal. Instructions for filing comments are available at brattleborotv.org. Comments must be filed with the FCC by midnight on Dec. 14.

In Vermont, U.S. Senators Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders have signed onto a letter authored by Massachusetts Senator Edward Markey, addressed to Trump-appointed FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai. The Oct. 29 letter objects to the fact that the proposal would "alter, at the cable operators' discretion, the terms of the local franchise agreements," thereby putting "at risk critical funding for public, education, governmental stations, as well as broadband connections to schools and other public buildings."

Other senators signing the letter include Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.

In a separate matter, On Aug. 28, 2017, Comcast filed suit in U.S. District Court for the District of Vermont arguing the Vermont Public Utilities Commission "exceeded its authority under federal and Vermont law" by imposing "numerous conditions on Comcast's continued cable operations in the state that are arbitrary, unprecedented and will ultimately harm local cable subscribers by resulting in millions of dollars in increased cable costs."

It said the commission "did so despite overwhelming record evidence that Vermont cable subscribers do not want to incur any additional costs or fees for the kinds of conditions imposed" in the commission's January 2017 order.

In September, Judge Geoffrey Crawford ruled "none of Comcast's allegations plausibly suggest that the burdens are substantially greater than necessary to further Vermont's important interests. Many Vermont residents find cable services to be valuable, but if service is limited to a few densely populated areas, Vermonters outside of those areas fail to benefit. Thus, inherent in the principle of the public good is an obligation to make service available to as many customers as possible within a company's service territory."

Furthermore, noted Crawford, being required to provide space and resources for PEG channels is not an infringement of Comcast's First Amendment Rights, as Comcast had argued in its initial filing. That court case has not yet been resolved.

Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 151, or raudette@reformer.com.


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