Picking up support: Markey blasts FCC proposal that would hurt community TV stations

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BOSTON —  Community television operators across the state are picking up political support as they await the outcome of a proposed rule change that could put their ability to broadcast local events at risk.

On Monday, two representatives of Berkshire County community television stations joined with their colleagues across the state to hear Sen. Edward Markey blast the proposal as an "existential threat" to community television. After holding a public discussion in his office with about 100 representatives of state cable access channels, Markey urged other states to follow Massachusetts' lead and push back against the Federal Communications Commission's proposal.

"We're the revolutionary state, and this is where the revolution begins against the Federal Communications Commission," Markey said.  "This is where the fight begins, and we're going to spread this across the whole country, because 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, and we are in now for the fight."

The proposed rule change asks the FCC to allow cable operators to deduct "in-kind" services — which are separate expenses that they pay for — from franchise fees. Under the Communications Act of 1984, cable companies are required to annually return up to 5 percent of their gross revenues to the municipalities for whom they provide service. These "franchise fees" are what local television stations use to pay for community and education programming. The proposal would allow cable operators to decided what to deduct and how to value those services.

The proposal has already passed the public comment phase. In December, the operators of Berkshire community television stations said they expected the FCC to make a decision by early this year.

There hasn't any movement on the proposal this year yet, said Shawn Serre, the executive director of Pittsfield Community Television, who attended Monday;s gathering in Markey''s office.  While waiting for a decision, community television operators across the state have been busy picking up political support for their cause. Congressman Richard E. Neal, D-Springfield, came out in support of the state's community television operators last month, Serre said.

"State and local representatives are making the case to the FCC that this is a bad idea," Serre said Tuesday. "They should not do this. We're hoping it makes a difference. We're kind of waiting for the next step."

Deb Dane, the executive director of WilliNet, which provides community television programming in Williamstown, also attended Monday's meeting in Markey's office, Serre said. Because the meeting at Markey's office was recently scheduled, the representatives of other Berkshire community television stations had conflicts and were unable to attend, he said.

"Generally speaking, all of the access groups in the Berkshires have been banding together on strategies to help each other," Serre said.

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IN FROM THE START

Of Markey's support, Serre said: "he's been our champion from the very beginning. :He was one of the first senators or congress members to notices that this was a problem and he came out against it...He hasn't forgotten the importance of this issue public access television in Massachusetts."

On Monday, Markey  said if the franchise fees were eliminated  "local governments in Massachusetts and across the country would be forced to decide between supporting local [these] channels and supporting other critical institutions serving the public good, like schools and public safety buildings." He said, "That's a Sophie's choice, and it's just not right."

Melinda Garfield, president of the community access TV organization MassAccess, said the proposed rule change would have "devastating effects" in Massachusetts, which she said has the highest concentration of community media centers in the country.

"If enacted, the residents of the commonwealth face the real possibility of losing access to their local government meetings, local sports, community events, along with the ability to take advantage of what are now considered free video services in their towns and cities," said Garfield, also the executive director of the Westwood Media Center.

Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said more than 1,400 individuals and groups from the Bay State have filed oppositional comments with the FCC.

Beckwith said one comment came from a Rotary club that had raised $1 million for local charities and international causes through 20 years of a fundraiser that airs on the local cable station.

"They would not have raised a fraction of that without cable access to essentially involve the entire community," he said.

 also assume the costs of cable-related, in-kind contributions," the fact sheet said.

Information from the State House News Service was used in this report


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