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Will FCC Defund Public-Access TV, Help Cable Firms?

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Monday, October 22, 2018   

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — A proposed rule from the Federal Communications Commission could cripple funding for local community media outlets. The outlets, also known as public, educational and government-access television, make up thousands of channels across the country and broadcast a variety of content, such as distance education courses and candidate forums.

Cable companies currently fund them in exchange for use of public lands to hook up consumers to their services. Under the proposal, local municipalities would have to foot the bill. Martin Jones, president and CEO at MetroEast Community Media, said this could seriously hamper people's access to information.

"It could destroy the ability to deliver transparency in government to everyday citizens by our government channels, when we broadcast council meetings that most people can't leave work to go to,” Jones said; “the school board meetings, the water commission meetings, the planning commissions meetings.”

These channels have historically been considered "in-kind" resources. Under the FCC proposal, a monetary value would be assigned to them and included in what's known as a franchise fee paid by cable companies and capped at 5 percent of their gross revenue. The agency has argued this fee and in-kind contributions impede innovation and are a barrier to the market for cable companies.

The FCC did not respond to a request for comment.

Mike Wassenaar, president and CEO of the Alliance for Community Media, called the proposal a backdoor attempt to drain the coffers of local government on behalf of the cable industry.

"It forces local governments into a position to say either they can take the money to be able to pave roads or pay for fire department or other services, or they could have to give up the channels that they use to communicate with their citizens,” Wassenaar said. “And we think that's not a fair bargain."

Wassenaar said local governments in some places still are struggling out of the recession from a decade ago, and that means community media there is hurting too. But, he said community media stations in other places actually are thriving in a time of increased interest in localism ...

"... at a time when major media outlets are turning their back on local communities,” he said. “And we're actually seeing a renewed interest in people thinking about their place and thinking about information about their place and the information needs of people in their neighborhoods."

The public can comment on this proposal through November 15 on the FCC's website.


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