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Markey, local cable operators, fear loss of access channels if new FCC rule passes

Those who run the county’s three access channels say the new rules, which would severely impact their revenue streams, would likely put them out of business and deprive the public of valuable programming available nowhere else.

Pittsfield — The battle to save local public-access cable stations such as CTSB and PCTV continues.

Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., today announced that he has joined 14 of his Senate colleagues, three of whom are presidential candidates, in writing a letter to the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission urging him to protect public, educational or governmental stations as it proposes changes to the rules governing agreements between local franchising authorities and cable operators.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai

“[PEG] stations connect Americans to their communities, catalyze civic engagement, and keep us up to date on the local issues and activities that affect our lives,” the senators wrote to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.

Click here to read the full letter.

“Your proposal would force local governments to decide between supporting PEG stations and supporting other important services for critical community institutions like schools and public safety buildings. We strongly urge the commission to avoid any policy changes that will harm PEG channels and limit needed services to the communities we represent.”

Those who run the county’s three access channels say the new rules, which would severely impact their revenue streams, would likely put them out of business and deprive the public of valuable programming available nowhere else.

Under existing FCC rules, towns and cities nationwide are allowed to negotiate multi-year franchise pacts with cable television providers. Those municipalities can require in the agreements that the cable companies meet certain community needs such as setting aside channels for the PEG channels. These needs are funded by a franchise fee in the cable bill customers receive each month.

However, the proposal the FCC is considering would permit cable companies to assign a value to these channels, deem them in-kind contributions and then subtract that amount, and the value they place on any other in-kind contributions, from the franchise fees the cable company pays the local community, known legally as the local franchising authority.

Lee High School student Quinn Burnell on the set of ‘The Buzz,’ a CTSB program that showcases news in the region’s schools. Photo courtesy Community Television for the Southern Berkshires

Markey said the FCC will vote on this change at its Aug. 1 meeting. If implemented, the order would force local governments to decide between funding PEG stations in cable franchise agreements and supporting other important services for critical community institutions like schools, libraries, roads and bridges.

Leo Mahoney, general manager for Community Television for the Southern Berkshires, which serves five towns in South County, told The Edge he is grateful for Markey’s support for public-access television and lauded the efforts of Shawn Serre of Pittsfield Community Television. Moreover, he added:

“For years our stations have worked hard to service our viewers by bringing them gavel-to-gavel coverage of selectmen and school board meetings. Transparency in coverage of local government meetings is more important than ever, but like everything, it comes at a price.”

Mahoney said, without the financial support the PEG access centers receive from the cable company, none of the stations would be able to survive for more than two years. Those funds, Mahoney explained, cover the cost for equipment upkeep, building costs and salaries for the staff members who record and get the programming on the air. In South County where CTSB operates, the funds derived from the 5% fee on the Charter-Spectrum cable bill just cover the CTSB operating expenses.

Shawn Serre. Photo courtesy Pittsfield Community Television

“There is no extra money for large salaries or frivolous spending,” Mahoney said. “Our board of directors account for every cent and lay out an expense plan that is manageable.”

The channel has an annual budget of roughly $400,000 that covers the salaries of four staff members and the debt service of its new studios and solar array at Quarry Hill Business Park in Lee. Click here to see CTSB’s most recently available IRS 990 filing.

PCTV is a larger operation and has an operating budget of roughly $700,000. Click here to see PCTV’s 2017 IRS 990 filing. Both channels serve Charter franchise areas.

“Any loss to the funds PEG stations receive would hurt our stations severely,” Mahoney added. “I question the cable companies’ motives and truly believe that public-access television is something they care little, if anything, about.”

Serre of PCTV echoed Mahoney’s concerns. He said the Cable Act of 1984 was designed to provide channel space and funding for PEG channels, in exchange for the value of the public’s rights of way that cable companies use to run their businesses.

A Charter-Spectrum van parked on Main Street in Great Barrington. Photo: Terry Cowgill

“That’s a model that has worked successfully for 35 years. Now, the FCC, driven by the lobbying arm of the cable companies, wants to take some of that value away from local governments and the people, and give it to the cable companies,” Serre surmised. “Access organizations like PCTV provide a tremendous service with all of our local programming and access for residents to create programming that gets shared with the community. We’d like to be able to continue that local mission as it was originally envisioned,”

Markey says there are more than 1,500 public, educational and governmental studios/operations and an estimated 3,000 PEG channels in the United States. Religious programming represents 30% of local access programming. Tens of thousands of hours of programming is produced by veterans, seniors, the disabled and ethnic, minority and second-language groups, Markey explained.

Charter has also angered Markey and other state and municipal officials over its dropping of Massachusetts network affiliates from its cable systems. Markey has said he intends to file legislation in Washington that would move Berkshire County out of the Albany, New York, television market, where the Federal Communications Commission has placed it, and into the Springfield market.

Charter is a member of the Internet & Television Association (formerly the National Cable & Telecommunications Association), a trade organization representing cable companies and currently headed by former FCC chairman Michael Powell. When asked for comment on the FCC’s proposed rules changes for PEGs last year, Charter referred The Edge to a 66-page comment posted by the association applauding the proposed FCC rule.

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