Leaders of local community access TV stations say they are facing an uncertain future after this week’s vote by the Federal Communications Commission that could lead to a cut in their funding.
Community access stations are funded through a fee that is charged to subscribers by cable providers and passed along to the stations. That amounts to about a $600,000 annual budget for Salem Access Television and $500,000 for Beverly Community Access Media, for example.
Under the new rule passed by the FCC on Thursday by a 3-2 vote, cable providers will be able to keep some of that money for themselves as payment for the “in-kind services” they have always provided for free, such as discounts for seniors and fiber-optic networks that link government buildings. The result would be smaller budgets for the local access stations, although nobody is certain how much smaller.
“Right now it’s a big question mark,” said Walt Kosmowski, executive director of Beverly Community Access Media. “It could be a small amount. It could be much larger based on what they say are the value of these in-kind donations.”
Cable providers are required by law to fund local access stations in exchange for its use of public property for its wires and cables. The companies pay for that cost by charging subscribers a “franchise fee” on their monthly bills.
Beverly Community Access Media, or BevCam, is in the eighth year of a 10-year contract with Comcast, and Kosmowski said it is unclear how the new FCC rule will affect the next contract.
For example, he noted that Comcast built out a broadband fiber network that connects city buildings such as City Hall, the fire department and schools. That network now constitutes an “in-kind” contribution that can be subtracted from BevCam’s budget.
“Now they’re saying, ‘We’re going to start charging you for the value of that,’” Kosmowski said.
The impact of the FCC’s decision could be delayed by lawsuits. The Alliance for Community Media, which represents local access TV stations across the country, is likely to challenge the ruling in court, Kosmowski said.
“The FCC is basically changing the law that has stood for 40 years,” he said.
Salem Access TV Executive Director Patrick Kennedy said Salem is also in the middle of a 10-year contract with Comcast that funds its $600,000 budget. The budget pays for the station’s six employees as well as equipment, upkeep and rent for its Derby Street location.
“We have a contract and should be all good for the next five years,” Kennedy said. “When it comes time to renegotiate, we’ll see what happens. None of us really knows. That’s one of the scary things. You can’t plan for it.”
While the FCC ruling threatens community access budgets, a bill filed by a Massachusetts state legislator could provide a new source of funding. The bill, filed by Rep. Paul McMurtry of Dedham, would impose a fee on digital streaming services like Netflix and Hulu to support community access stations.
The fee would be equal to 5 percent of the revenue those companies earn in Massachusetts. The money collected would be split among local access cable TV stations (40 percent), cities and towns (40 percent), and the state’s general fund (20 percent). As of Thursday afternoon, 85 legislators had signed onto the bill as co-sponsors.
Massachusetts Community Media, which advocates for local access stations, said streaming providers rely on local infrastructure to sell their product just as cable companies do, “yet pay nothing to use that infrastructure.”
“These new streaming services should be held to the same standards, accept the same responsibilities, and make the same contributions as cable companies,” Melinda Garfield, president of MassAccess, said.
Kennedy said the fee on streaming services would help replace revenue that is lost when people drop cable and rely on streaming networks. The number of cable TV subscribers in Massachusetts dropped by almost 7 percent from 2013 to 2018, to just more than 2 million, according to data from the state’s Department of Telecommunications and Cable.
“This is the way TV is going,” Kennedy said. “It’s a way for us as public access centers to be able to keep up with the times and the technologies and provide communities what we give them.”
Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Material from the State House News Service was used in this story.