Cable access stations are facing a financial reckoning
Tune in to Boston community television and you could catch an episode of “The Greek Program,” a 24-year-old foreign language talk show that is the city’s longest-running public access offering.
In Chelsea, viewers might see a farewell tribute to the landmark Soldiers’ Home water tower. And for those up late in Somerville, and interested in this kind of thing, there’s “Heavy Leather Topless Dance Party,” a risque revue of hard-rock musicians and sparsely clad dancers.
But this offbeat menu of shows — along with the steady coverage of hourslong public meetings — may not be long for your dial. Community television stations are facing an existential threat.
The Federal Communications Commission is considering a measure that could reduce the fees that municipalities charge cable providers for the right to run wires along public rights of way. Revenue from those fees makes up the vast majority of the budget for public access channels.
The prospect has stations racing to come up with new sources of money, and it is raising alarm that many may have to reduce services or even close.
“I think we’re all kind of deciding, how are we going to survive?” said Melinda Garfield, who runs Westwood’s public access programs and is president of MassAccess, a trade group representing the stations in the state. She said she is encouraging stations to quickly rethink their business models. “Now, the fire, hopefully, is lit. Because it’s almost too late.”
Often called PEG channels, in reference to their “public, educational, and governmental access” mission, some stations date as far back as the 1960s. Beyond local programming, they also provide access and studio space to residents for video production that might otherwise be prohibitively expensive.
They are reasonably popular, outdrawing some better-known programming in many markets.
There are about 220 PEG stations in Massachusetts running 400 channels, one of the highest levels in the country.
“A lot of times, the people who come into PEG stations, particularly in Boston, are the ones who would have no other way of getting their voices heard and their opinions heard,” said Susan O’Connor, general manager of Boston Neighborhood Network Media, which runs public access programs for the city.
But the future was cloudy for many stations even before the latest measure.
So-called cord-cutters are switching from cable to Netflix, Sling TV, and other on-demand and live video services delivered online. The Internet connections that deliver these products are not subject to the same local fees as cable, even when they come through the very same wires.
Fewer cable users mean fewer fees available to fund PEG budgets.
The measure before the FCC could turn that gradual decline into a sudden drop-off.
Federal law says state and local governments can’t extract fees worth more than 5 percent of a local franchise’s revenue from cable TV service.
The actual channels where viewers can find public access programming through their cable provider are generally provided at no cost, for instance.
The FCC could vote as soon as April to let cable companies count the value of those concessions toward the 5 percent cap, which would reduce the cash they’d have to pay to state and local governments. That would mean less money to support public access.
The National Cable and Telecommunications Association says the fees add up to more than $3 billion per year, and the costs of the fees extracted by local governments are usually passed on to consumers.
“The process that was intended to encourage the deployment of services to strengthen communities is instead placing an unnecessary burden on cable operators that threatens to hinder their ability to innovate and expand their services,” the organization said in a November statement praising the FCC.
Though it’s not certain how cable companies will value the concessions that have traditionally been free, it seems clear that the more concessions cable companies have given municipalities, the more the cities and towns have to lose. Stations that run multiple channels, for example, may have to give up more funding to keep them on the dial.
“Those local governments that currently have contracts with a lot of consumer protection in them, and more robust PEG requirements, they’re going to feel this the most,” said Nancy L. Werner, general counsel for the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors, a group of local government officials.
The measure to shift the fee structure has faced a growing chorus of opposition since the FCC proposed it last fall. Massachusetts municipalities, public access stations, and elected officials have been among the most vocal, in part because of the sheer number of stations here.
Senator Edward J. Markey said he has been in touch with the commission to urge members not to proceed with the measure.
“We’re trying to stop it now and to have a movement build up across the country that says to the FCC that this is an existential threat to a PEG system that has been in place for decades,” Markey said in an interview.
Thomas G. Robinson, a consultant whose Philadelphia firm CBG Communications evaluates the performance of public access stations for local governments, said the stations have a decent audience. They’re watched by at least 4 to 5 percent of cable customers in most markets, That, he said, puts them ahead of better-known stations such as the Weather Channel and the Golf Channel.
A 2015 survey conducted for the City of Boston found that 82 percent of the city’s cable subscribers considered community TV channels to be “important” or “very important.”
As revenue from cable revenue declines, stations will have to see what viewers and residents truly value in a service that has long been taken as a given, Garfield said — whether the FCC passes the change or not.
She said stations will have to appeal for grants, sponsorships, and local government funding. They also need to think of services they can sell. Those that can’t prop up their revenue may wind up going online-only, shuttering their studios, or closing.
“I see it being regionalized quickly, because the smaller stations that were not planning ahead will have to close, and the larger stations will jump in and try to offer some services,” she said.
The PEG station of the future might look something like NewTV, Newton’s public access station, whose shows include the Emmy-winning historical program “The Folklorist.” The station, which has a handful of corporate sponsorships, runs a for-profit production company on the side and rents out its space for events.
Together, these innovations have made cable revenue a smaller part of NewTV’s financial picture — though it still makes up about 75 to 80 percent of the organization’s $1.6 million operating budget.
Executive director Robert Kelly said he believes the organization will be able to weather the proposed FCC change, but he is rushing to adapt to the change that is coming.
“We still want to be around. Newton residents will want us to be around. Government meetings still need coverage. People still need to express themselves,” he said. “So where do they go?”