FCC rule would harm local cable access TV

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In 1934, the U.S. government established the authority of the Federal Communications Commission over radio, television and wire broadcasters, and subsequently satellite and cable operators, as the regulatory agency operating on behalf of the American public. A recently proposed rule change by that body, however, suggests that the FCC is more interested in creating loopholes through which cable carriers can fatten their profits at public expense than in the welfare of the people it is commissioned to serve.

Since 1984, cable companies have been required to return up to 5 percent of gross revenues in the form of "franchise fees" to municipalities in exchange for the privilege of being allowed to do business with their residents.

These funds are critical to the operation of local access channels, those essential public outlets that carry programming of public interest, such as city and town council meetings, educational programming, school events and committee meetings, faith-based programming and programs for the underserved (such as immigrants learning English as a foreign language).

In the past year alone, Bennington-based CAT-TV aired over 2,000 programs on its channels, facilitated production of more than 800 local shows and had over 200,000 minutes of programs viewed on its online platforms, according to its executive director, Lisa Byer.

The proposed rule change, Docket 05-311, would allow cable companies to deduct "in kind" costs from those franchise fees.

The sinister aspect of this change is that what would be considered "in kind" — as well as what such services were worth — would be left up to the cable companies, and they could unilaterally decide to simply cancel out local franchise fees by asserting that "in kind" services were worth whatever they currently pay in such fees.

Even worse, local customers, who generate those franchise fees as a portion of the rates they pay, would continue to pay them — only rather than financing the lion's share of local access channel expense as they currently do, they would instead go toward fattening cable companies' profits.

Local public access stations CAT-TV and GNAT, for whom up to 95 percent of their operating budgets are paid through these franchise fees, have voiced alarm that they could go out of business as a result of the rule change.

Local and federal elected officials have written letters to the FCC expressing their dismay.

There is no rational explanation for the FCC's proposed change except a recent tilt by the government in favor of business interests, be it through the systematic relaxation of environmental protection regulations, the selling away of precious public lands or in this case the abrogation of responsibility to ensure that those who make a profit from the use of public property pay for the privilege.

The FCC will hand down its final decision early next year. Continued public pressure on elected officials is the only way to prevent, or if necessary reverse, the likely harmful outcome.


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