Eric Davis: Trump, FCC threaten local access TV

Across Vermont, 66 public access television channels provide coverage of local government for subscribers to cable television systems. In Middlebury, Channels 15 and 16, operated by Middlebury Community Television, broadcast meetings of the Middlebury selectboard, the Addison Central School District board, and other local government bodies, as well as a range of church services, lectures at the Ilsley Library, and other programming.
In Bristol, Northeast Addison Television (NEAT) offers similar coverage of local government and community events on Channel 16. Both of these stations also provide individuals and groups in the community access to studio and production equipment for locally produced programs.
The public access channels in Vermont are operated by 25 Public Educational Government Access Management Organizations, or PEG AMOs. Federal law requires cable television operators such as Comcast to provide communities in which they operate with at least one public access channel. With 66 public access channels, Vermont has the most such channels on a per capita basis of any state in the country. One national study found that the public access channels are watched by 4 to 5 percent of viewers in most communities, representing higher viewership than many other alternatives on 100-plus-channel cable systems.
The Vermont Access Network, which represents the 25 PEG AMOs in the state, is very concerned about a pending proposal from the Federal Communications Commission that would substantially change the way community access television is funded in Vermont.
Cable companies now pay a franchise fee to municipal governments for the right to use the public right-of-way to string cables and wires, and to have monopoly status as a cable provider in their community. The FCC is proposing that cable companies be allowed to reduce the franchise fees they pay by deducting from their payments to local governments the monetary value of the public access TV channel.
Revenues from the franchise fees now make up by far the largest source of financial support for the community access channels. One of the primary advocates of the FCC’s proposal is Comcast, one of the dominant cable TV operators nationwide and the largest such operator in Vermont.
If the FCC approves a final version of the funding proposal, the payments from Comcast to Vermont’s PEG AMOs will be substantially reduced. In those circumstances, several of the community access channels will likely go off the air, or substantially curtail their programming, unless they can raise funds from memberships, granting agencies, or other contribution sources.
The FCC’s proposed rule illustrates two aspects of policymaking that are becoming increasingly common in federal regulatory agencies as Trump Administration appointees come to occupy a larger share of the positions in those agencies. First, the agenda of regulated industries is increasingly likely to be put forward as proposed rules by the agencies that are supposed to regulate those industries. Second, a consequence of many proposed rules is to reduce transparency in government, an outcome that could result if PEG AMOs had to reduce their broadcast coverage of meetings of local government bodies where important decisions are made.
The FCC is now evaluating the comments submitted in response to its proposed rule, and a final decision could come as soon as April. In the meantime, the PEG AMOs are trying to mobilize public opinion against the proposal.
Since November’s election that produced a Democratic majority in the House, the supporters of community television are also trying to build congressional support. All three members of the Vermont congressional delegation — Sen. Patrick Leahy, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Peter Welch — support continuing the present funding arrangements for PEG AMOs.
There would likely be a majority in the House to pass legislation stopping the FCC’s rule, but whether such legislation could even get to the floor in the Senate, much less overcome a Republican filibuster, is very much in doubt.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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