Our Opinion: Cable access channels jeopardized by FCC

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The Federal Communications Commission, which was founded in 1934 to regulate the broadcast industry on behalf of the American people, is poised in the Trump era to bestow a gift worth millions upon cable TV corporations — and should that come to pass, that same public will be the big loser.

In an innocuous-sounding "rule change" to the Communications Act of 1984, the FCC would allow cable providers to deduct "in-kind" services from a local franchise fee to municipalities required by the Act, specifically a maximum five-percent levy on gross revenues. "In kind" is currently a term without a clear definition, and in a particularly diabolical twist, the FCC plans to leave it to the cable companies to determine the monetary value of such nebulous services (and exactly what those service are) before deducting that value from their mandated fee. Without a check applied by the federal government the cable giants can't be trusted to do anything other than what benefits them financially.

Why should average viewers care if their cable provider manages, with federal government assistance, to pull a fox-and-henhouse move regarding these franchise fees? Because while 5 percent may sound paltry, it translates into the millions upon which local access stations primarily depend for their annual operating budgets. Pittsfield Community Television (PCTV), for example, has a fiscal 2019 budget for which 95 percent, or $706,397, will come from the franchise fee that Mayor Linda Tyer negotiated with Spectrum on behalf of the city. Other stations in the region, like Northern Berkshire Community Television in North Adams and Community Television of the Southern Berkshires in Lee rely on local franchise fees for 90 percent or more of their budgets, and the loss of such funds due to accounting legerdemain would strip the airwaves of coverage of municipal meetings and events, local sporting contests and educational programming that is a lifeline for local communities. PCTV Executive Director Sean Serre estimates that the rule change could affect 30 to 50 percent of his station's budget, and depending on Spectrum's method of calculating the value of its "in-kind" services, could even wipe out the station's entire funding base. Mr. Serre is not ruling out the worst-case scenario when it comes to Spectrum. "They're dirty players," he told The Eagle.

Clearly, the FCC under the Trump administration is no friend of consumers (Chairman Ajit Pai, for example, used to be a Verizon lobbyist), and this latest proposed action typically ignores the damage it might do to the public's interest in favor of awarding more profits to industry fat cats. A required public comment period addressing the move expired late last year, and local access stations in Massachusetts have banded together to raise public awareness and support for the cause of leaving things the way they are — a mechanism, according to PCTV Executive Director Sean Serre, that has worked smoothly for 35 years and does not need fixing. Leading the charge is U.S. Sen. Edward Markey, who as a Massachusetts congressman helped write the 1984 legislation that developed the franchise free concept in return for allowing cable companies to use public rights-of-way to string their lines. With the knowledge that Massachusetts, to its credit, has a greater concentration of such public access stations than any other state in the nation, Sen. Markey has promised a fight. Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, told State House News Service that more than 1,400 individuals and groups from Massachusetts have joined that fight by filing comments with the FCC opposing the change.

At a meeting called in his Boston office on Monday, Sen. Markey told assembled local access station officials that "at jeopardy is nothing less than democracy, nothing less than the voices of ordinary citizens in every single city and town in Massachusetts and the whole country." He is correct in his assessment of what he described as an "existential threat" to community television, and he also realizes, along with officials from at-risk stations, that the only way the public's best interests can become the deciding factor in such a decision is if the public itself awakens to the threat and makes its displeasure known.

Such a response is necessary here, and we encourage Sen. Markey, as well as members of the public, to create a situation where it becomes politically untenable for the FCC to more forward with its unfair and confiscatory plan.

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