By Ernesto Aguilar and Mike Wassenaar
The FCC voted 3-2 along party lines earlier this month to change long-standing guidelines related to cable franchising fees. The modifications detrimentally affect one of educational media’s great unsung heroes, Public, Educational and Government access television and radio stations nationwide.
At issue for many communities are what may be, to the average consumer, little-known regulations from the Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984. That legislation limited what cities can bill cable companies for local access to 5 percent of gross revenues on cable bills. Cities then use that money to support their local PEG stations.
Now the FCC will permit cable providers to deduct in-kind services and equipment from the established cap, potentially reducing their monetary support for PEG outlets. This interpretation is contrary to the wishes of Congress, which clearly intended for only monetary payments to count as fees. Such a change directly targets PEG channels, which now face possible extinction.
For cable viewers, the local franchising charge amounts to a few cents up to a dollar of the alphabet soup of items associated with their bills. Yet the fees have brought tremendous benefits to cities and towns, despite their decline as more cable viewers cut the cord. PEG stations supported through the fees have widely been considered a hallmark of media localism. For the elderly, working people, students and everyone, PEG channels have been a window into the intricacies of City Hall, the classroom of a town’s college, and the insightful, creative journalism and storytelling offered on public-access television.
PEG has grown up from its portrayal in Wayne’s World. Look no further than BRIC’s incisive documentaries on its Brooklyn community, contextual local weekly newsfrom Virginia PEG TV/radio outlet Arlington Independent Media, or the young filmmakers competition hosted by PEG organization Access Sacramento to witness an educational medium that has matured.
When the FCC announced last year that it would reassess regulation of franchising fees, PEG media outlets were quick to spring into action and warn of potential harm to their financial health. The executive director of the Cape Cod Community Media Center noted that “this decision could eliminate government transparency, limit free speech and reduce the public’s access to media channels.” Senate Democrats called the proposal “a lose-lose choice” in an Oct. 29 letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.
Despite such protests, the FCC opted for a course that could devastate PEG stations. Al Williams, executive director of Northampton Community Television, told the Daily Hampshire Gazette that Northampton Community Television stands to lose $240,000, more than half its yearly budget. The CEO of CreaTV in San Jose, Calif., has said that the new rules could allow Comcast to end its annual contribution to the PEG station, which amounted to $1.4 million in 2017. “With a total annual budget of just over $2 million, this would decimate our organization,” he wrote.
PEG organizations are hunting for new revenue sources. John Masters, executive director of GrassRoots Community Network in Aspen, told the Colorado Sun that his organization is renting equipment. Others are asking their communities for contributions.
Just about anyone observing trends in local journalism and media ownership can see the need for better policies across the country to support local information. From civic discussions to cultural exchanges, people require media’s guidance to be more informed about and engaged in our precious democracy. In fact, that principle was at the heart of the aforementioned 1984 act — that community needs must be met when local government and the cable industry form franchise agreements.
By airing municipal meetings and candidate forums, PEG stations help to reignite waning interest in local elections. In Goffstown, N.H., Goffstown TV provides local sports, meeting coverage and town news to a community of 11,000 people. On a budget of $110,000 a year, it produces over 450 hours of local content. Goffstown doesn’t exist as a demographic reality in the TV or radio market, and commercial and even noncommercial stations can’t match the specificity of service that the operation provides.
Now multiply that success to 1,500 channels across the country. All of these affected cities are at risk because of the FCC order, which treats local communities with contempt.
The effects of the FCC’s decision will go beyond PEG stations. The new rules, which will take effect in September, will allow cable companies to assign market values to benefits and charge the amount back to local communities in most cases. Benefits include items such as free cable subscriptions for schools, discounts for the elderly, and perhaps most importantly fiber connectivity to local government buildings such as police departments, fire stations and libraries.
The rationale? The Commission’s majority seems to believe in trickle-down economics — that allowing cable companies to charge back fees will increase company profits and lead to more broadband in America. But talk with communities in 23 states that have limited or eliminated fees that communities can charge for the use of their property and support of community channels — states such as Wisconsin and Ohio — and look for a correlation between limiting local power and increasing broadband investment. The only correlation is increased company profits.
Indeed, in her dissenting vote on the FCC’s Order, Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel pointed out that there will be no way to enforce company promises that the money they pocket will be invested. She believes that the FCC’s actions, “instead of speeding our way to the digital future, [are] slowing us down, increasing our division and diminishing the dignity of local institutions.”
Community channels like Goffstown TV and scores of others are a part of the noncommercial ecosystem in America. We need policies that benefit small local institutions as well as the largest and best-resourced to meet the information needs of all Americans.
In this era of news deserts — communities with limited access to credible and comprehensive news and information — and deepening polarization, killing PEG broadcasting is the last thing our country needs. As lawmakers in Washington, Texas, Florida and other states look to exempt their communications from open records requests, PEG stations’ role in broadcasting government meetings is critical. For generations, public broadcasters have stated the case for educational programming, reminding policymakers about the difference media access makes to everyday Americans. The FCC’s move to undercut a crucial educational voice demands our sharpest attention in support of media access and our communities, as legal action is certain to follow.
Ernesto Aguilar is program director of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters. Mike Wassenaar is president and CEO of the Alliance for Community Media.