NEWBURYPORT — For years, residents have been able to tune in to a variety of local cable television programs, but a new rule headed for adoption by the Federal Communications Commission could eventually pull the plug on the city’s local stations.
Cable companies, such as Comcast, have offered communities their own free access channels as part of their contracts since the 1980s, and have covered the costs through franchise fees they pay to communities.
But the FCC’s proposed rule would allow cable TV companies to set values for public access stations and subtract those amounts from the franchise fees, which would cut funding for the local stations.
“It would be devastating. We’re scraping by as it is,” said Sarah Hayden, executive director of Greater Newburyport Community Media Hub, formerly known as PortMedia.
In an article published in the October issue of The Beacon, Massachusetts Municipal Association Executive Director Geoff Beckwith called the FCC’s pending rule an example of its “anti-consumer agenda,” ranking it among other recent moves that have “marginalized consumers,” including the decision last year to repeal net neutrality.
In the article, Beckwith said “the public would be shortchanged” by the new rule and that its adoption “would be another windfall for industry, coming at the expense of local taxpayers, residents and consumers.”
The City of Newburyport receives 4.3 percent of Comcast’s gross cable revenue each year, and 3.6 percent — about $82,000 per quarter, according to Hayden — is used to cover salaries, rent and heavy equipment bills for NCM Hub. If the FCC cuts funding for NCM Hub, Hayden said the studio “would scramble and try to survive until we couldn’t survive.”
NCM Hub broadcasts local, regional and national programming on Channels 8, 9 and 98 in Newburyport, with content that includes local government and school meetings, and a host of other educational and community-inspired programs.
If the FCC’s proposed rule is approved, Hayden said it could limit not only the community’s access to local politics and events, but also residents’ ability to express themselves to the public.
“If we went away, people would be less educated when it comes time to vote,” she said. “We’re here to let people have a voice in their community.
“Local TV was started to make sure that people have freedom of speech and to make sure corporations don’t own the airwaves, but what’s happening is that the cable companies don’t want local media,” she said. “They don’t want people to have access to local information, to stay informed and be engaged citizens.”
Lance Wisniewski, executive director of the Salisbury Community Television and Media Center, said because the monetary value of each station hasn’t been established, the impact of the FCC’s new rule is not yet clear.
“It really depends on how much this amounts to, what they think they can charge and get away with,” Wisniewski said. “If they came up with something huge, it could cut us back considerably if not completely.”
At a time when he believes local programming should be expanded, Wisniewski said he sees the situation as a display of corporate persuasion of government.
“The key thing to focus on is that cable operators have bought their way into power with the FCC and are getting them to change their approach with all of this. It’s clearly the influence of big money in politics,” Wisniewski said. “The idea that cable companies would be looking for more opportunities in a system where they monopolize all the communications anyway, is abhorrent.”
Beckwith said the Municipal Association will present “strong comments” against the cable franchise fee order when the comment period opens and that the organization is working with the National League of Cities, the National Association of Telecommunications Officials and Advisors, and state municipal associations across the country.
Hayden has sent emails to U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., expressing concern with the FCC’s proposed rule. Wisniewski said regional media organizations are working to mount a challenge against the FCC, but if the rule is adopted, he hopes communities will be charged honest rates that allow their local stations to stay on the air.
“If we can’t get it dismissed, we need to make sure that their charges are consistent and fair and hold up that they’re not just making things up, which they’re often good at,” Wisniewski said.
Staff writer Jack Shea can be reached via email at email@example.com or by phone at 978-961-3154. Follow him on Twitter @iamjackshea.