WCM Quarterly – Community Access Television is under an unprecedented attack from the Federal Communications Commission that could spell the end of cable access channels.
The FCC, now chaired by Trump appointee Ajit Pai, is considering ways to whittle away the public interest obligations cable companies have under federal law by charging cities for anything that does not earn the companies revenue. City expenses will go up, cable company expenses will go down, and cable subscribers will pay the same price for cable but without the Public, Education, and Government (PEG) access channels that air locally-produced programs. The community access channels will disappear because many cities will no longer be able to afford to equip, staff, and pay for them.
For nearly 50 years, communities have been given the use of one or more PEG “access” channels on cable systems for programming of local interest – government meetings, issue debates, local music shows, community events, school sports and more. Knowing that cities have many serious priorities, federal law has also provided two ways to fund these channels so that cities can afford to produce programming for them and train the public to do so, too.
Now, the FCC wants cities to pay cable companies for these channels with the franchise fees the law requires cable companies to pay cities for the use of city streets – the same fees cities use to fund community television and other city services. The other fee available under federal law to pay for PEG facilities and equipment has been outlawed in Wisconsin (2007 Act 42)
A comment period is now open on the FCC’s Second Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (MB Docket No. 05-311). If the FCC is successful in reinterpreting the law in this unprecedented way, Wisconsin cities will face an unwelcome choice: keep the community PEG access channels and find another source of money to fund production of programming or return the channels to the cable company.
If the PEG channels are returned to the cable operator by cities, there will be no local programming on cable anymore.
WCM and all community TV advocates across the nation are very concerned about the future of access television. If you like being able to see your community on Cable TV, go to www.wisconsincommunitymedia.com for more information and to learn what you can do.
Note: OnFocus is owned and operated by TriMedia, which serves as the current MCTV contractor. The contract is complete in April 2019. At that time the City of Marshfield will helm the responsibilities of cable access through the creation, approved in September, of a new Communications Department run by two employees: a Communications Director in January 2019 and the Communication Media Specialist in March 2019. The creation of both positions, recommended by the Communications Team, was approved at the Oct. 29 meeting of the Common Council.
The Communications Department was created with the understanding that it would result in cost savings to the City. With these serious changes by the FCC, the City of Marshfield would face the same challenges as other cities which operate cable access channels – how to fund it if the law is reinterpreted.