The Biden administration has come forward with two nominees to fill vacancies on the Federal Communications Commission.
Why does this concern Vermont? The FCC is the regulatory agency that oversees Public, Educational and Governmental (PEG) access. And as we have seen during the pandemic, citizens have relied on Vermont’s 25 PEG stations more than ever. PEG’s long-term sustainability has been shaky given that cable companies, which are mandated to provide a percentage of profits based on its customer base, have been seeing fewer subscribers in recent years as streaming has taken hold.
The revenue model for cable television companies has changed over the last two decades with the deployment of voice, broadband and video “bundle” services. By doing so, the companies actually make an increasing percentage of their income from broadband and the Internet — not cable.
That is because changes need to be made to FCC regulations in order for PEG stations to continue to get their share of the profit in order to continue to provide services on TV and online.
PEG access became a mainstay of cable television when Congress passed the Cable Communications Act of 1984. It allowed local franchising authorities to require cable companies to set aside channels for locally produced content. Nearly all of Vermont’s PEG stations receive support directly from cable customers who pay a small fee each month in their cable bill. That federal blessing is key.
Because cable operators may not control the content of local programming on public access channels, PEG stations are one of the last places where, as citizens, we can witness “community” in its purest form. Public access is not just about keeping municipalities transparent and accountable by broadcasting public meetings, it is about partnerships, education, understanding, diversity, democracy and social integration. It is a glimpse into the hearts of are towns and cities.
And while there is no way we can reverse the trend away from cable, there can be steps taken to by the FCC to protect the PEG network while, at the same time, each of us can show our support — volunteer, donate, watch on TV or online — shows being produced by our local PEG stations.
According to the Alliance for Community Media, an organization whose charge is to advocate for PEG, Acting Chair FCC Jessica Rosenworcel has been nominated to be the permanent chair of the commission. She is joined by longtime consumer and media rights advocate Gigi Sohn who has been nominated to be the fifth commissioner at the agency. Sohn had been a key adviser to former FCC chair Tom Wheeler during the Obama administration.
According to ACM, “both candidates know community media and should be sympathetic ears at the Commission for local communities.”
ACM President Mike Wassenaar reported that, so far, more than 250 community media organizations called on the administration to make the appointments earlier this summer so the commission “could change destructive policies adopted in the last commission. Now the clock is ticking on confirmation of the nominees in the U.S. Senate.”
Politico reported this week that the chair of the Senate Commerce Committe, Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), is planning to pull together a wide-ranging confirmation hearing for the week of Nov. 15.
“That would be our goal,” Cantwell told Politico. “Two FCC (nominees) for sure, and we’ll see about the other ones.”
Cantwell predicted confirmation of Rosenworcel, however, “Sohn may face a tougher time given the Senate’s 50-50 split and uncertainty about where certain moderate Democrats like Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona may fall. Sinema is a member of Senate Commerce, so this hearing could offer clues about how she’s leaning,” the Politico article states.
Senate Democratic leaders have good reason to move quickly on these nominees. If they’re both confirmed, they’d create tie-breaking Democratic majorities on the FCC. If the Senate doesn’t vote on the FCC nominations, Republicans would assume an FCC majority in January. (Left-leaning advocacy group Free Press is petitioning in support of both Rosenworcel and Sohn, citing an interest in reviving Obama-era net neutrality rules, according to Politco.)
Because PEG is critical to informing our communities as to the decisions being made at the local level, and because these stations are critical to providing local content, we urge concerned citizens to reach out U.S. Sens. Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders (both longtime PEG advocates) and let them know that they should support the confirmation of Rosenworcel and Sohn to the FCC. The Senate switchboard can be reached at 202 224-3121.
A critical piece of our local democracy and community building relies on these confirmations … before PEG’s time runs out.