Staff members at Vermont’s cable access channels say they’re looking for local support with a potential change pending that could reduce their funding.
Cable providers, which in Vermont is generally Comcast, are required to provide funding for local cable access channels in return for their access to public airwaves. But that amount is capped at 5 percent of the gross revenues from a cable provider and a new rule proposed by the Federal Communications Commission would allow in-kind contributions be treated as “franchise fees” and subject to the 5 percent cap.
Tom Leypoldt, executive director of PEG-TV in Rutland, said the government shutdown had delayed the implementation of the FCC change, but now that the shutdown is over, the administrators of cable access channels are worried about an uncertain future.
“Basically, they’re deregulating our franchise fee so Comcast might be able to bill us for things that we have gotten in-kind before and we’re not sure what those things are going to be. We won’t know until a decision comes down,” he said.
Chris Lenois, president of the board of Brattleboro Community Television, said the loss of income could harm the ability of channels like PEG-TV or BCTV to provide televised coverage of municipal and school board meetings, training in using video and audio equipment and access for community members who want to create their own programming.
Lenois said the regulation, if changed as proposed, would give cable companies a lot of latitude.
“You’re talking about an opportunity to quite possibly zero out funding that they provide under the cable act. So, yeah, if you take it to the extreme, it could really jeopardize the ability of any public access media source to operate,” he said.
Leypoldt said the public access stations are not waiting idly for proposed changes. On Feb. 20, they went to the State House in Montpelier to share their concern with legislators at the state level.
Lenois said the concerns had also been brought to Vermont’s Congressional delegation. He said there had been support from Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., and senators Bernie Sanders and Patrick Leahy, both Democrats.
In Brattleboro, a petition at Change.org has also been created to be sent to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. The PEG-TV contribution has been to send out an email linking to a site that will automatically send out a letter to Congress based on the area code of the person who clicks on the link.
Leypoldt acknowledged that the local efforts could be challenging because the decision will be made at the federal level.
“Right now, we’re trying to bolster as many members of the public to send petitions to their congressman and U.S. senators just to show that the public is not in favor of this and public access is valued. Any defunding would be a detriment,” he said.
Lenois said many public access channels will be asking voters to approve funding appropriations to support them at town meeting next week.
The PEG-TV link to show support for cable access channels can be found at bit.ly/PEGpetition.