A proposed change to the way the Federal Communications Commission regulates public-access television channels could pose a danger to the survival of Montgomery County’s 11 public, educational and governmental channels, advocates say.
The FCC is considering amendments to the Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984 that would allow cable companies to deduct the fair market value of the channels from franchise fees paid to local governments.
U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen wrote to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai earlier this month and said the proposal will be “detrimental to the health of PEG channels in Maryland and throughout the country.”
“PEG channels provide essential local programming not provided by other media and reflect the special interests and character of their specific communities. The entire state of Maryland is served by a limited number of broadcast stations,” the Maryland Democrat wrote. “Local community events in the other 12,000 square miles of Maryland are often overlooked by commercial and public broadcasters because larger media entities have little time or incentive to cover them. Our local PEG channels are also invaluable and essential.”
Montgomery County’s public access channels include Montgomery Community Media, an independent nonprofit, as well as the county’s public affairs channel County Cable Montgomery, the municipal channels in Rockville, Gaithersburg and Takoma Park, Montgomery County Public Schools and Montgomery College among others.
The PEG channels provide public affairs programs, such as live and recorded coverage of meetings, news conferences and events. Reporters also conduct on-camera interviews as part of stories that are aired both on TV and online.
Montgomery Community Media CEO Nannette Hobson said the FCC’s proposal would be devastating to their stations and many others. In the case of MCM, more than half of their revenue comes from the cable fees, and the rest comes from the nonprofit.
According to the county’s 2020 operating budget, $2.7 million is budgeted for Montgomery Community Television, the parent company of MCM that contracts with the county’s Office of Broadband Programs.
The county has budgeted $2.9 million for the County Cable Montgomery, which broadcasts County Council meetings, press conferences and other government affairs programming.
Another $5.4 million has been budgeted for the county’s Office of Public Information, which is responsible for providing information to the media, and for distributing information on the internet, social media and other forums.
“If a public channel is run by a nonprofit, such as MCM, we have the ability to be supported by other means such as scholarships and grants. But not all PEG channels have that opportunity,” she said.
“If there were no revenue from the cable fund for Montgomery Community Media, it would absolutely endanger the organization’s future and sustainability.”
Hobson said the proposal is a “double whammy” in the face of what are already declining cable revenues.
“It’s no secret that cable subscribers are dwindling, and with the dwindling subscription, that means that the franchise fees are dwindling,” she said.
Hobson said she worries about the possibility MCM and other public access stations not being able to survive in an era when local media is disappearing.
“Communities need to value the organizations that bring news and information to them. And if they want it, they have to support it,” she said.
Mike Wassenaar, the President and CEO of Washington-based Alliance for Community Media, a national membership organization that represents 2,500 PEG channels across the country, said the changes could be voted on as soon as the FCC’s August meeting. If approved, it would likely take effect in November or December, he said.
Wassenaar said the net effect is that cable companies will essentially be able to “make up a price” for what they must pay for the use of the local rights-of-way.
“It would appear to be setting up rules that favor the cable industry to squeeze the industry to get rid of the channels,” he said.
Wassenaar said since the FCC first made the proposal last fall, 14 senators and 22 representatives have written to the agency in opposition. Van Hollen and Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md) were among them.
He said there hasn’t been a proposal regarding franchise fees similar to this one prior to President Donald Trump’s election victory in 2016.
“This leadership seems to be beholden to the idea that big corporations need more power and need more money,” he said.
Wassenaar said if the FCC votes in favor of the change, there could be mergers in some cases, and some may be forced to shut down in the case of rural stations.
“I think for extremely small organizations in towns across the country, they may cease to exist. Many of those operations are the only local information source,” he said.
Wassenaar added that he has “advised folks to plan for a long financial winter.”
An FCC spokesman wrote in an email that they are reviewing Van Hollen’s letter.
Dan Schere can be reached at Daniel.firstname.lastname@example.org