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[Editor’s note: The entire meeting will soon be available for viewing at westfordcat.org.]
Concern over a widening budget gap dominated the discussion at the WestfordCAT annual meeting on June 19, when almost 30 volunteers and board members gathered to launch a new fiscal year.
Community access TV stations are facing a one-two punch from both cord-cutting subscribers and the Federal Communications Commission which appears to be on the verge of making a major industry change in how much money the stations receive from Comcast and Verizon .
But WestfordCAT Board President, Dan Bush, kicked off the meeting on a positive note by underscoring the TV station’s productivity for the year.
“This has been a terrific year for WestfordCAT in a variety of ways,” he said. “…Thank you to you all who really make WestfordCAT what it is.” Bush said without the volunteers and show producers, the station couldn’t make the same kind of impact that it makes in the community today.
He extended an invitation to anyone interested in joining the station’s board to reach out to him. After installing the current board officers and having the annual meeting members approve last year’s minutes, Bush introduced executive director Lauren Horton who reviewed the organization’s activities for the year.
Horton highlighted a significant capital improvement in the studio’s front area which is equipped with new edit systems and virtual reality equipment. She also noted the volume of programs produced over the year, including more than 200 studio productions and 126 on-location government meetings. Thirty-nine new members joined WestfordCAT in 2018 and subscriptions to the daily WestfordCAT News service surpassed the 500 mark. Also, online viewing of programs skyrocketed over the past year, up 62 percent as viewers switch from cable channels to online viewing.
“Unfortunately, that leaves us with a challenge,” said Horton. Cable company revenues for television services were down and so the franchise fees paid to fund the community access stations were down as well. Net assets for WestfordCAT dropped 9 percent in 2018 partially due to Verizon and Comcast cable customers who cut cable TV services in favor of internet streaming. That reduction in funding was compounded with Comcast’s adoption of new accounting rules that reduced the television portion of their bundled offering price.
“Because the TV portion of their triple play package is less,” said Horton, “they now give us less.”
Additionally, Horton said that the FCC is considering a ruling that would deduct the value of “in-kind contributions” from the 5 percent franchise fee that cable companies are contractually obligated to turn over to local towns. Still under review, these in-kind contributions could range from the value of basic cable services that are provided to Westford’s town offices and school buildings to the transport costs associated with sending programming from WestfordCAT to residential customers. The FCC could issue an order on this ruling as early as August 1, when the next FCC meeting is scheduled.
The board has directed Horton to reduce this year’s budget deficit by $25,000, either by reducing costs or adding income sources. WestfordCAT will either cut personnel costs or increase efforts to obtain new underwriters and viewer donations.
Horton said she’s hoping that “the business community will see the community relations opportunity that goes with supporting WestfordCAT so the station can continue to operate without cutting staff and services.”
“By adding 10 business underwriters from the community,” Horton noted, “I could fulfill the board’s request to supplement our current budget.”
Program underwriters get exposure on WestfordCAT’s cable channels, websites, and social media pages. For an annual fee of $2,500 they can support current programs such as town governmental meetings, or work with WestfordCAT to define and develop a new program of their interest. WestfordCAT would then help them assemble a crew of staff and volunteers to get it produced.
Following the discussion, awards were given out to Betsy Alvarez as Producer of the Year, Bridges by Epoch as Business Member of the Year, and Ryan Cozzens as Volunteer of the Year. WestfordCAT news anchors Nancy Burns, Chuck and Chris Steinhauser, Tracey Tebrow and Kristina Leedberg were also recognized for their contributions to the weekly news program.
Bush closed the meeting by thanking the members for their involvement and for offering their time and ideas on how to continue to provide local programming and a timely news service for the Westford community.
“We’ve had thousands and thousands of people who have come to read the news articles that we’ve posted up,” he said. “…We want to provide the service of delivering the news to the town. That’s again where we need your help, is to try to figure out how to build a relationship with the community so that they value what it is that we’re trying to put forward.”