The government shutdown has given public access stations some extra time to rally their supporters against a proposed federal rule they fear would impact their funding.
The Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984 requires cable companies to divert some of the profit they make from subscribers to public-access stations such as Onion River Community Access Media in Montpelier, and PEG-TV in Rutland. A rule proposed by the Federal Communications Commission would let cable companies set the value for in-kind services they provide to these stations. The fear for many in public access television is that the cable companies might set these values so high it would hurt the stations’ operations.
Kevin Christopher, president of Vermont Access Network, an umbrella organization for Vermont’s public access stations, said Thursday that while the official public-comment period for the rule change ended in the middle of December, residents are free to contact the agency with their concerns.
He said a decision on the rule wasn’t expected until late spring or summer, but the partial government shutdown, which entered its 20th day Thursday, may well delay the rule change.
“Last Thursday, the FCC went dark, so nonessential functions, which this falls into, have been suspended,” Christopher said.
At the top of the FCC’s webpage is a red banner bearing the message “Due to the partial government shutdown, the FCC suspended most operations at midday Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019. For details, see https://go.usa.gov/xEg6R."
The government shutdown began after President Donald Trump decided not to sign a spending bill approved by Congress because it didn’t contain funds for a southern border wall.
Christopher said there are few silver linings to the shutdown, which has hundreds of thousands of federal workers wondering when they’ll be paid next, but he and public access television advocates won’t sit idle.
Christopher said he met with the Vermont Library Association on Thursday and plans to meet with the Chittenden County Library Association soon. Libraries, he said, often work with public access stations.
He said VAN is also planning a legislative day set for Feb. 20 when VAN, local public access stations and the Alliance for Community Media — a national public access television advocacy group — will be at the State House in Montpelier to meet with and inform legislators about what’s happening.
He’s reached out to state Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Dover, and Windham County Sen. Becca Balint, to see if there’s a role the Legislature can play. He’s had contact with U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., as well.
“(The) short answer is things are changing rapidly and we are working to learn and adjust as quickly as possible,” Sibilia said in an email Thursday.
She said Balint plans to take testimony at some point in the session from public access television groups.
“I’m interested in understanding how we can support, protect and expand public access programming and access in this time of disruption to the entire telecommunications industry, but have not yet introduced any legislation,” Sibilia said. “We were invited to participate in a meeting with multiple press outlets including (Brattleboro Community TV) in Brattleboro to talk about the changing and consolidating landscape on media outlets and what is possible. There was discussion about forming a local press association.”
Rob Chapman, director of ORCA Media, said his group is taking its cues from VAN.
Tom Leypoldt, executive director of PEG-TV, said the level of uncertainty, from the proposed rule change and now the question of when the decision will be made, has been hard on his organization. He said the level of support from people in the Rutland community has been quite high and his people are doing their best to keep folks informed.
Leypoldt said he plans to be in Montpelier for the legislative day in February to show support and help spread information.
He hopes the FCC is simply looking to update its rules for the modern age, and if this one does go through, cable companies will be reasonable in their pricing. He said he’s heard from some that the only reason they subscribe to a cable provider is to see what’s on PEG-TV.