Federal regulations could significantly cut ORCTV funding

Dec 12, 2018

As ORCTV heads into the new year, the cable access station is dealing with significant budget uncertainty due to looming changes in federal policy.

Local access television stations, including ORCTV, are funded through a franchise fee that cable companies pay to municipalities. The Federal Communications Comission has proposed giving cable companies more authority over  these fees, with potentially huge impacts for local cable companies.

“I don’t think they would go as far as to completely cut cable funding, but they could deeply cut into what they are giving us,” said ORCTV Executive Director Robert Chiarito.

Chiarito also questioned if the change was ethical or should be allowed.

“The laws and rules were made by Congress, and this is a three person board made of people who used to work for the cable companies changing it,” he explained.

“It’s a bit like the fox watching the henhouse,” he added.

As for the ORCTV budget, Chiarito described it as “in complete limbo,” adding that they won’t know what the impact will be until the end of January or the beginning of February, when it is likely to get its first franchise fee after the new legislation.   

The Federal Cable Communications Policy Act, passed in 1984, governs these fees, which are used to fund public, educational, and government access (PEG) programming.

Under the proposed rule change, Keith Thibault, Chairman of the Alliance for Community Media and Director of Fall River Community Media, said that cable companies could be allowed to offset franchise fees by deducting certain “in-kind services” from the total granted to cities and towns. However, exactly what cable companies could be allowed to count as “in-kind” is a complete mystery.

“It could be extremely dire, without knowing specifically what cable companies will look to put into in-kind services,” Thibault said.

Depending on if, or what, the FCC clarifies cable companies can use to offset the fee, it could cover anything from the monetary value of local access television channels and equipment, to customer service hubs some companies like Comcast operate in its coverage area.

The FCC announced the proposed change in September, and has been soliciting comments from the public on the rule change. The comment period is set to end on Friday, Dec. 14.

Chiarito explained that close to 60 percent of the comments that the FCC has received on the proposed change have been from Massachusetts, adding that the state has a strong community television culture. 

After the comment period ends, the FCC would hold a vote on approving or denying the rule change at any time.

“We have no idea when that will be,” Thibault said. “It’s up to the FCC.”

Massachusetts senators Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) authored a letter, along with several other senators, opposing the proposed rule change in October.

"This is a lose-lose for [local franchising authorities] and the residents they serve," wrote the senators. "We fear this proposal will result in a dire drop in resources for PEG channels throughout the nation."

Chiarito believes that if the rule passes  it will likely be contested in court. He also hopes that changes in Congress could lead to more congressional backing for the issue.

Though Massachusetts Senators have already weighed in, Chiarito encouraged residents have other lawmakers weigh in.

“If people value what we do and want to weigh in they can call state and congressional representatives” about the issue, Chiarito said.