Public access stations face funding cuts, and an uncertain future

Cities and towns in Massachusetts― and across the country― could lose vital sources of community due to a recent rule passed by the FCC

February 16, 2020

When Cape Ann TV producers decided to rebrand the public access station in early 2018, they knew they had a tough road ahead.

“There was a stigma attached to cable access that was kind of the ‘Wayne’s World’ idea,” said Erich Archer, the executive producer of the station. “We were known for horrible quality content, and that’s not something we could build a future on.”

Cape Ann TV, like many public access stations, had to adapt to a world where streaming services and social media were king. A world where cable — for younger generations especially — was becoming a novelty of the past.

To stay relevant, Archer and his staff changed the station’s name to 1623 Studios, moved its location from an off-to-the-side industrial park to a modernized space in the heart of downtown Gloucester, invested in drones and new technology, and launched an aggressive online strategy to make the station prominent on most social media platforms.

So far, Archer said all of this has worked. The station’s most popular content receives around 20,000 views on social media, which is just under half of Cape Ann’s population.

“It’s a very exciting time,” Archer said.

But just as public access stations like 1623 have begun to find their footing, a recent rule passed by the Federal Communication Commission could severely hinder― or halt― their progress.

Drastic changes could have dire consequences

Each public access station is funded by a franchise fee its community receives from cable companies. The fee is, at most, 5% of the gross revenue cable companies generate in that community, and it primarily funds the creation and distribution of public access content.

Stations also receive in-kind contributions from cable companies that are exempt from counting toward the 5% franchise fee. These contributions can include equipment, software, and other technology that stations use to create and distribute their content.

In a 3–2 vote in August, the FCC ruled that most non-monetary contributions that have been considered in-kind will now have to count toward that 5% franchise fee, making it so that these stations will have to foot the bill for equipment and other expenses they haven’t had to pay for before.

The FCC said in a statement after the rule passed that the local franchise authorities who oversee funding for public access stations “unlawfully” imposed franchise fees over the 5% cap by considering these contributions as in-kind. The FCC said this hinders “broadband investment, deployment, and innovation” by cable companies.

Massachusetts politicians and public access professionals, however, said the rule will slash these stations’ budgets to the point where they’ll have to cut back on services and staff, or even shut down.

Glenn Williams, general manager of Boston’s public access station, the Boston Neighborhood Network, said alternative sources of funding won’t totally make up for this decrease in contributions from cable companies.

“We can get grants for art shows, equipment, and archiving stuff, but the electricity, power, air, and the people inside of the building that make all that stuff happen isn’t supported through grants,” said Williams.

“I have been doing programming (at BNN) for 22 years, both on television and in radio. I recognize its value. I understand what it does for the community. I know what it did for me. I’ve learned something new every week,” Williams said. “That opportunity can be taken away just because five people (at the FCC) thought it was a good idea.”

A vital place for community

On top of airing local meetings, public access stations provide both young and old with classes, studio and editing spaces, and equipment to create shows on just about any topic they choose.

“The freedom of speech is a crucial [part of public access],” Williams said. “We have a couple of producers on BNN’s radio side that are staunch Republicans, and they have every right and have the exact same space and opportunity for assistance as the staunch Democrats in there.”

Many stations also run youth programs and clubs. ICAM in Ipswich, for example, provides stop motion and claymation classes for middle schoolers, and runs a video production club at Ipswich Middle School. The station also offers a popular animation program for elementary school students for a week in the summer.

Some public access stations are also a source for local journalism. BNN airs a news broadcast that focuses on Boston’s neighborhoods twice a night, and the Brookline Interactive Group (BIG) in Brookline teaches journalism classes to both children and adults.

On top of this, BIG now provides classes on how to use virtual reality technology for people of all ages. The team behind BIG’s Public Virtual Reality Lab, which opened in 2015, even traveled to Nairobi, Kenya in 2017 to present a VR project it helped produce to more than 800 international leaders at the United Nations Environmental Assembly.

These stations, however, are most important to those who do not have access to most technology.

Since public access stations typically operate on low-number channels that are available on most televisions, low-income viewers consistently watch public access stations. Williams said diminishing or getting rid of these stations would cut out a major part of their media consumption, and their connection to their community.

Yet these viewers, and public access professionals, still aren’t sure about exactly how much the new FCC rule will affect stations.

What could be lost — and what’s being done to save it

David Gauthier, the president of MassAccess― an advocacy agency for public access stations in Massachusetts― said stations expect to see the damage when their cable operator’s fourth quarter financial reports are released sometime in February.

“It’s hard to say what people are doing to prepare for loss of funding, but one unfortunate side effect I’ve begun to see is that people are losing their jobs,” Gauthier said. “Some organizations are becoming a bit panicked and making harsh personnel decisions before the true effect of the ruling can be seen.”

BIG Executive Director Kathy Bisbee said BIG could lose an estimated one-third of its funding this year due to the FCC rule.

To help offset this loss, a bill that would require streaming services like Netflix and Hulu to help fund public access stations is working its way through the Massachusetts state legislature.

While Gauthier said the proposed streaming bill in Massachusetts would help fund public access stations, it wouldn’t replace all the funding they have traditionally received from cable companies.

At the federal level, Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey and California Rep. Anna Eshoo filed a bill in January that would prevent in-kind contributions from being considered as part of the franchise fee that comes from cable companies.

“Across the country, community television studios catalyze civic engagement and provide Americans with news and information they need,” Markey said in a statement. “The need for media by communities for communities is only increasing.”

According to 24/7 Wall St. , more than 2,000 newspapers in The United States have closed since 2000. Many more have merged to form regional newspapers, or have cut their printing down to several days a week.

“As the newspapers struggle, who’s providing this hyper-local content? And the answer is, these local cable stations are,” Archer said.

Some organizations and activists are trying to overturn the FCC’s rule through the courts.

A hearing on the request for a stay of the FCC’s rule is scheduled for March 11 in Cincinnati. If the court does issue a stay, the rule would not take effect until all legal challenges to the rule have been completed.

The stay wouldn’t buy every station enough time, however. Gauthier said some stations have already begun laying off staff and cutting back services to prepare for the financial blow they face once the rule’s full impact is known.

“If those rulings come out a year after they’ve already put [the FCC’s rule] into effect, a lot of the smaller stations will already be gone,” Williams said. “It will be irreparable damage.”

Williams was at a national conference with other community media professionals when the FCC’s rule was first announced in August.

“We weren’t talking about things like how we can broaden our appeal to the public. We weren’t talking about how we can get more cameras into conference rooms where people are having meetings and hearings,” Williams said. “We were talking about saving our lives, and that’s scary.”

Follow Caroline on Twitter @CarolineEnos.

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    Kyle CrozierFeb 18, 2020 at 9:11 am

    This was such a fantastic article Caroline! I learned a lot, and now I’m personally invested in these stations. When the time comes, please write a follow up so I can hear more about the future FCC effects on the groups. Well done!