WestfordCAT sign. PHOTO BY JOYCE PELLINO CRANE

Proposed Policy Change to Cable Communications Policy Act has Community Access TV Stations on Edge

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A pending policy change by the Federal Communications Commission has community access television stations on edge.

The commission voted on Sept. 24 to change section 621(a)(1) of the Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984 that will affect how much money the cable providers pay to the local towns to operate their public access stations. A comment period is ongoing through Nov. 14. Reply comments are due on or before Dec. 14. Community activists are trying to rally enough support to convince the FCC officials to change their minds.

“We’re asking our viewers and readers to submit their comments in favor of public access stations before this proposed change is passed and our funding is reduced to a level that could force us to shut our doors,” stated Lauren Horton, executive director of Westford Community Access Television.

The FCC section undergoing the overhaul oversees the franchise fees cable providers pay to local towns in exchange for the use of public rights of way to connect local homes to their services. In Westford, Comcast and Verizon fund the station’s operation. By contract, the cable providers pay the town 5 percent of the total gross cable revenue they receive from resident subscribers. Under the new policy, cable providers would be allowed to deduct “in-kind contributions” from the 5 percent cap, meaning they could reduce cash payments for other goods and services negotiated in their contracts with the town.

It’s unclear what those goods and services would be or how they would be valued but they would count toward the 5 percent quarterly franchise fee payments, potentially taking a large bite out of the operating funds for public access stations.

In the FCC’s Second Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, adopted on Sept. 24, a franchise fee is defined as “any kind of tax, fee, or assessment, without distinguishing between whether it is related or unrelated to the provision of cable service.”

The FCC proposed shift is explained by Commissioner Michael O’Rielly in his undated published statement 18-131 in which he notes that “the market for communications services is dramatically changing before our very eyes, making many parts of current law and Commission regulations vastly anachronistic.”

In his statement, O’Rielly makes clear that he’s trying to prevent the overreach of municipalities who oversee the community access TV stations. He praises the proposed policy change for trying to limit the amount of franchise fees paid to the stations.

“…It correctly proposes to count cable-related ‘in kind’ contributions against the cap on franchise fees,” O’Rielly stated. “The absence of such a limitation leaves franchise authorities with the ability to endrun the fee cap, making a mockery of the law.”

But Horton noted that the policy change will further reduce funds that have already been dropping due to customers replacing their cable service with video streaming services.

WestfordCAT is a non-profit corporation governed by a Board of Directors and operates with a staff of six employees. It has a contractual obligation to the town to record all meetings of the Board of Selectmen, School Committee and Planning Board. In addition, WestfordCAT employees regularly record meetings of the Zoning Board of Appeals, the Conservation Commission, the Board of Health and the Financial Committee.

Horton noted that her staff members record many town events including the annual Apple Blossom parade and graduation ceremony of Westford Academy. The television station offers classes in television production and editing and has partnerships with other community organizations.

A few years ago, the station added a news department to cover local news on a daily basis and produce a weekly news show that highlights some of the more important issues and happenings around town for the week.

“Visitors come to our website looking for local content,” Horton stated. “They watch video on demand or livestream our programs. We also have a strong presence on social media. We are more than just television.”

The FCC is seeking comments from the general public on the proposed ruling. So far, in 16 pages of comments on the FCC website, the overwhelming majority voiced opposition to the policy change.

“I’m a student filmmaker at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in my junior year,” wrote one commentator. “Plymouth EDTV serves as a launchpad into the world of Filmmaking, Journalism, and creativity, opening the door to many different career paths for youth. Film is the art of documentation, expression, education and storytelling, please don’t take this away from the next generation.”

But O’Rielly presented another view.

“Without our action today, which is consistent with past Commission rulings, franchised authorities would be emboldened to intervene, impose mandates, extract concessions and more on (a) host of services outside the scope of Congress’ directive,” he stated.

To read the 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.

Joyce Pellino Crane is the news director at Westford Community Access Television.

UPDATE – This article was edited on Nov. 9 to clarify the relationship between the cable providers and the community access television stations.