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COMMENTARY: FCC Proposed Policy Change Could Phase Out Public Access Television Stations. Here’s Why it Matters

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WestfordCAT has been the town’s non-commercial, local media outlet since its inception in July 2005. We have become so dependable with our coverage of town meetings and events that we are almost taken for granted by the daily visitors to our website, our news site, our Facebook page, our Twitter account, and our cable channels.

But recent actions by the cable networks and the deregulation efforts of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) threaten to chip away our funding, drastically reduce the services we provide, and possibly eliminate WestfordCAT all together. Comments to this  FCC policy change [section 621(a)(1) of the Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984] that favors cable companies and hurts local stations are being accepted until midnight on Nov. 14. We’re asking our viewers and readers to submit their comments in favor of public access stations before this proposed change is passed and could force us to shut our doors.

Here’s some background:

Our operational funds come from Comcast and Verizon. By contract with the town, they are required to send 5 percent of their cable-related revenue back to the town to fund our local channels. In Westford, this 5 percent charge is actually passed through to their customers as a line item on their bill called “Franchise Fee.” So really it’s the Westford cable customers that are paying for the PEG channels. And every time a local cable customer stops getting cable and moves over to streaming devices to get their video content, a little less money goes to WestfordCAT funding.

Unfortunately, now there are even more factors working to reduce our funding.

This year Comcast reduced the television revenue portion of their bundled “Triple Play” offerings, leaving access stations around the country with an unplanned reduction in our operating funds. Add that to the recent ruling filed by the FCC that threatens to deduct the cable company costs of carrying the PEG channels from the 5 percent of cable revenue funds and we could see our funding eliminated altogether.

If that happens, what does the town stand to lose?

WestfordCAT, as a non-profit corporation, manages the Public, Education and Government (PEG) channels available on both Comcast’s and Verizon’s cable TV networks. In addition to covering the local government meetings required in our contract –the Board of Selectmen, School Committee, Planning Board, and Town Meetings — we also cover the Finance Committee, the Conservation Commission, the Zoning Board of Appeals, and the Board of Health, along with additional special meetings throughout the year whenever we’ve been asked.

But we do so much more than that.

Our coverage of community events like the annual Apple Blossom parade and Westford Academy Graduation captures the faces of the spectators and puts them on TV. We hold group and individual classes on video production. We offer youth discovery programs in conjunction with the Roudenbush Community Center, the local schools and area Scout programs. We partner with Nashoba Valley Technical High School to give hands-on experience to their TV Media students and Westford Academy to help graduating seniors with their Capstone projects. Our studio is equipped with backdrops, a green screen, quality cameras, mics, lights, and a teleprompter, available to the public for live or recorded productions.

Our news department produces a weekly news program and publishes daily articles on our news website. Our award-winning, flagship show, Main Street, brings residents from all walks of life into the studio. Readers describe our content and coverage as far superior to commercial outlets when it comes to town specific events and issues.

Visitors come to our website looking for content. They watch video on demand or livestream our programs. We also have a strong presence on social media – letting people know when we have new videos or articles and allowing them to share and comment on the content.

And our latest addition, a new Public VR Lab, demonstrates cutting edge 360 and 3-D video technology, offering virtual reality development opportunities for people wanting to learn this emerging technology.

And so the question comes back to our viewers and readers – does this matter to you? Would you miss the meeting coverage or the daily articles or the local programming or the video instruction and assistance if WestfordCAT were to lose its funding?

We need you to take a stand with us.

If your answer is yes, then you have until before midnight on Nov. 14 to go to the FCC website for Docket MB-05-311 and submit your comments on why allowing cable companies to circumvent negotiated contracts with local franchise authorities is a bad idea and what you, as a consumer, stand to lose if your local public access station goes away. Your comments will become part of the permanent record of this ruling and will absolutely make a difference.

We hope you care enough to follow this link to the FCC website and submit your comments to protect our funding and maintain our services.

To read others’ comments, click here.

To post a comment for Proceeding 05-311, click here

HOW TO FILE A COMMENT

  • Enter the number: 05-311 into the proceedings field.
  • Upon entry of numbers, it will self-highlight title: In the Matter of Implementation of Section 621(a) of the Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984.
  • Fill out the information requested and submit. You may also keep/print a copy of your submission for your reference.

Lauren Horton is the executive director of WestfordCAT.