A Proactive Plan Is
Characterizing a proposed Federal Communications Commission rule change as an “existential threat” to community television, Sen. Ed Markey has urged other states to follow Massachusetts’ lead in vigorously protesting its implementation.
If enacted, our junior senator said the FCC plan would let cable operators assign a value to public, educational and governmental access (PEG) channels, and then allow them to deduct the cost of local programming from the franchising fees they pay to cities and towns.
Through these franchise agreements, communities can require cable operators to carry PEG channels. These agreements set the fees Comcast and other providers must pay local governments to use public rights-of-way for their cable.
According to the FCC, federal regulations preclude franchise fees in any 12-month period from exceeding 5 percent of a cable operator’s gross revenues.
Advocates of the new rule, including the telecom industry and some fiscal watchdog groups, say it would help offset increasingly higher cable bills. Because, bottom line, cable operators will try to pass on those expenses to cable customers.
The FCC determined in a September 2018 fact sheet that local governments’ authority to require channels for PEG use does not “mean that the value of these obligations should be excluded from the 5 percent cap on franchise fees.”
So if municipalities want to require PEG channels, they can “count the value of the services or facilities toward the cable operator’s franchise fee payment.”
Suitably outraged, Markey declared this decision would force local governments across state into uncomfortable public funding choices, essentially pitting one municipal or education need against another.
Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, told the State House News Service that more than 1,400 individuals and groups have filed comments with the FCC opposing the change.
Local cable access channels do render an invaluable service to their host communities. Live broadcasts of a community’s selectmen’s or city council meetings -- and other municipal boards -- have become commonplace.
Just think of how much local-access TV contributes to great community causes like Dracut’s scholarship fundraiser.
But it’s also true that the push to rework local access fees has a lot to do with cable’s decreasing popularity. As more households drop cable in favor of Internet streaming options like DirecTV Now, Sling TV and YouTube TV, cable operators’ profit margins steadily erode.
And even if other states rally around Massachusetts, a highly unlikely FCC change of heart can’t halt cable’s decline.
Instead, Markey and others in Congress should be seeking funding to help communities identify the next generation of local distribution sources, including operating their own websites, or using YouTube or other social media to take cable’s place.
Our progressive politicians must be proactive, not reactive, in order to keep local access TV alive. No matter what the FCC ultimately decides, there’s still time to find suitable alternatives during the twilight of cable’s sway over our TV, Internet and cellphone habits.