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Anxious Times for Community-access TV

November 18, 2018

Lowell Telecommunication Corp. intern Matthieu Ruelle, 23, of Groton, a fourth-year student at Fitchburg State, edits video at the studio on Thursday.

Uncertainty is what many local access cable stations are feeling after hearing of a proposed rule from the Federal Communications Commission that could gut their funding.

Local access stations currently receive a percentage of their revenue from cable companies, which are required by law to give up to 5 percent of their gross income to support public access.

With this proposed change to the 1984 Cable Communications Policy Act, cable companies could chip away at that 5 percent funding mandate -- a major revenue source for local access stations. They could also assign values to channels and charge these local stations.

Shaun Neville, executive director of Wilmington Community Television, said when news of the rule came out a few months back, it “took a lot of breath away in the public access community.”

“There’s a lot of uncertainty right now and certainly a lot of fear in the industry as to what this could mean,” Neville said.

Wendy Blom, executive director of Lowell Telecommunications Corp., envisions having to shut down their operation as the worse-case scenario, should the rule go into effect.

“This whole thing was set up in 1984 and the whole purpose was to give the community channels and the ability to communicate with their neighbors, and it was dependent on the fact that the cable company would give the channels for free,” Blom said. “Now, to take that away just goes against the whole cable franchise act.”

Chelmsford Telemedia offers about 50 programs to the town, including coverage of municipal meetings, school events, sports games, citizen-led programming and more. CTM Executive Director Pete Pedulla said he spoke before the Board of Selectmen to get its support, and the board sent a letter to the FCC opposing the proposed rule.

“The gain to them would not outweigh the loss to our local community,” Pedulla said. “We understand where they’re coming from, but we preferred when the government held them accountable as a good community citizen.”

Many running these public education government, or PEG, stations say they produce content that connects the community, provides a transparent way to view government meetings and gives residents a voice on a unique platform.

Blom said a good portion of LTC’s programming caters to the diverse immigrant population in Lowell. From Monday through Thursday, she said they have programming broadcast in Khmer, the primary language in Cambodia.

“We call LTC the voice of Lowell around the world,” Blom said.

Fitchburg Access Television Inc. Executive Director Glenn Fossa said it is important to support local free-speech television. He said the station has a strong relationship with Fitchburg State University, they cover municipal meetings, community events, have religious programming and more.

For Fossa, who was on the FATV board for 15 years before taking on this role, the FCC proposal was predictable.

“As things go, you can see diminishing interest in part, of particularly Comcast and Verizon,” Fossa said. “There doesn’t appear, on their side at least, an upside to our existence. We take up channel space, we have programming but we’re non-commercial, so there’s no opportunity for that kind of corporate profit.”

Fossa said they have a plan B if the new rule is implemented, but they don’t know yet what that may look like for sure. And PEG stations across the nation are wondering why this change is so necessary.

“We’re facing enough uncertainty as it is with cord cutting and people trying to figure out other ways to watch television,” Neville said. “This just seems like an unnecessary grab at more of the money that funds public access television.”

Despite the fear of having to shut down completely, or drastically cut back on programming and staff, some feel there will be a positive outcome for PEG stations.

“I do feel hopeful because we’ve had so many threats to public access in the past, mostly on the state level, and we’ve been able to rally the troops,” Blom said. “This is on a national level, so it’s kind of a new area for us. I think it is going to require a big effort on people’s part to protest.”

But Neville said “hope” isn’t the word he would use to describe how he feels about the situation.

“I am optimistic that it won’t be as bad as we think it is and at the end of the day there are going to be some good arguments made as to why this is a bad idea,” Neville said. “Even if the FCC doesn’t see that, perhaps a court will see that later down the line.”

The FCC accepted public comment on the proposed change through Wednesday.

Follow Kori Tuitt on Twitter @KoriTuitt.

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