Markey bill would 'define or redefine' cable operator franchise fees for community TV

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PITTSFIELD — Legislation co-sponsored by U.S. Sen. Edward Markey would allow community television stations to continue to receive the adequate financial resources they need to provide local programming.

The Protecting Community Television Act, which the Massachusetts Democrat filed Thursday along with U.S. Rep. Anna G. Eshoo, D-Calif., basically would rescind a 2019 ruling by the Federal Communications Commission that redefines what is included in the annual franchise fees that cable operators are required to pay the communities for which they provide service. Community television stations use those fees to pay for local programming for public, educational and government channels.

In August, the FCC approved a measure that would allow cable operators to attach a monetary value to cable-related, in-kind contributions and deduct them from the franchise fees that they pay to the local communities.

The new legislation clarifies that the franchise fees the cable companies pay to local governments only include monetary assessments, not in-kind contributions. In-kind contributions include services like "cable drops," costs associated with broadcasting from different locations, like government buildings or schools, which cable companies traditionally have provided to community television stations for free.

"[Markey's bill] would define or redefine the franchise fees mentioned in the [Communications] Act of 1984," said Shawn Serre, executive director of Pittsfield Community Television. "It would put a fine point on it that [the franchise fee] is financial only and can't be interpreted as in-kind anything."

Cable companies currently pay for in-kind contributions through money they receive from subscriber fees, according to Serre.

"That's the kicker in the first place," he said of the FCC ruling. "[Cable companies] are not paying for it, but they want to put it back on their own balance sheet. That's the maddening aspect of this. It wasn't their money to begin with."

Serre was one of the community television directors from Massachusetts who had met to discuss the issue with Markey at his Boston office in April. In July, Markey led 15 of his colleagues in urging the FCC to protect community television stations.

"We've been waiting to hear back from Mr. Markey for a while now," said Richard Frederick, executive director of Community Television for the Southern Berkshires in Lee. "It's a big step forward. It makes us all very hopeful, but also nervous at the same time."

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The legislation seeks to modify the definition of a franchise fee in the Communications Act of 1934, the legislation that created the FCC, according to Serre. The Communications Act of 1984 that established the franchise fee is an amendment to that original legislation.

U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, co-sponsored Markey's bill in the House. In a statement, Neal said he has been an enthusiastic supporter and consumer of community television for many years.

"Across western and central Massachusetts these stations provide important local programming for cities and towns that can't be found in other mediums," Neal said. "That is why I strongly oppose the recent efforts of the FCC to cut funds for community television stations. The legislation that I introduced would protect public, education and government access channels and allow them to continue the important service that they provide to our communities on a daily basis."

Said Markey: "In the current era of medial globalization and consolidation, it is more important than ever that we stand up for the platforms that lift up small and local voices. Across the country, community television studios catalyze civic engagement and provide Americans with news and information they need."

There are more than 1,500 public educational and government studios/operations and an estimated 3,000 public, educational and government channels across the United States.

Markey's bill is endorsed by several national and regional organizations, including MassAccess, the umbrella organization for community access television across Massachusetts.

In a statement, MassAccess President David Gauthier thanked Markey and Eshoo for sponsoring the bill, "which corrects what we see as an erroneous ruling last year at the Federal Communications Commission relative to cable franchise fees."

"The FCC's ruling was a gift to the cable industry, and this bill would reestablish the protocol that had been agreed to for decades prior," he said.

Tony Dobrowolski can be reached at tdobrowolski@berkshireeagle.com or 413-496-6224.


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