Community Access Television faces defunding under potential FCC rule change

  • CATV Studio Producer and Education Outreach Coordinator Chico Eastridge, left, and Executive Director Donna Girot prepare to do a taping of "A Closer Look" with guest Bob Bacon, of Orford, N.H., who is an architectural designer on Thursday, Feb. 14, 2019, in White River Junction, Vt. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Donna Girot, Executive Director of CATV in White River Junction, Vt., works in her office on Thursday, Feb. 14, 2019. A proposed regulatory change at the FCC threatens to undermine the funding for local access channels. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Kali Mattern, left, speaks with Executive Director Donna Girot at the CATV offices on Thursday, Feb. 14, 2019 in White River Junction, Vt. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Business Writer
Published: 2/16/2019 10:03:43 PM

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — She’s been called “the Oprah of Vermont” but, thanks to some powerful lobbying in Washington, the longest-running TV show in the heart of the Upper Valley faces an uncertain future.

Linda Carbino has been hosting her own talk show, Walking Through Life, since 2005, producing 769 episodes that appear on public access channel Community Access Television — known as CATV — and are telecast over Comcast’s cable TV system in Hartford, Hanover, Lebanon, Norwich and Hartland.

The half-hour show, whose guests have included Vermont governors; U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt.; state Sen. Dick McCormack, D-Bethel, in sandals playing folk songs he composed on the guitar; Secretary of State Jim Condos; and a raft of other political honchos, is part self-empowerment and motivational gospel, part recovery program and part public issues forum.

“It’s about advocating for change and advocating for people with mental disabilities,” Carbino, who is open on the show about her own recovery from borderline personality disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, said about the show’s purpose. “Mostly it’s about people telling personal stories and talking about big issues.”

But shows like Walking Through Life and CATV’s gavel-to-gavel coverage of selectboard and city council meetings in the five municipalities it serves could go dark if the Federal Communications Commission, now helmed by a pro-cable-industry Trump appointee, implements a change in rules that essentially would allow cable TV companies to defund the public access channels they have been required to support for more than three decades under their franchise agreements with states and local communities, according to the nonprofits that operate them.

“We are facing a very real existential crisis,” said Donna Girot, executive director of CATV.

A tweak with big impact

At issue are arcane accounting rules that would let cable operators assign a monetary value to certain “in-kind” services and items such as cable service to schools and libraries and the value of the local access channels themselves that currently are provided for free under terms of the franchise agreement. Cable system operators like Comcast would then be able to deduct the value of those services from its franchise fee.

Such an action would be the equivalent of cutting the funding that local access channels receive from cable operators as a condition of their franchise agreements with municipalities, the nonprofit organizations that operate the channels contend.

“It boils down to an argument over reinterpreting the 1984 Cable Act,” said Kevin Christopher, executive director of Lake Champlain Access Television, which operates public access channels in Colchester and other towns in the northwest corner of Vermont. “For a small channel, it could be a devastating impact.”

The cable industry, led by its lobbying arm, the Internet and Television Association, which is backed by cable TV giants like Comcast and Charter Communications, argued in filings before the FCC that the agency has long misinterpreted the 35-year old Cable Act.

The cable group, known as the NCTA, marshals legal arguments asserting that Congress intended in-kind “exactions” to be classified as technically part of the franchise fee.

The cable companies allege municipalities often bully cable operators — which are losing customers as more people opt to “cut the cord” in favor of watching TV shows or movies over the internet — into onerous obligations to hold onto their franchise. The “in-kind” items, which also additionally include footing the cost of equipment used by the access channels, amount to an undue financial burden on cable companies, according to NCTA.

“Franchising authorities should not be allowed to continue to benefit from excessive in-kind exactions that are contrary to the statute and gained because cable operators have no other choice but to go along or file expensive, time-consuming lawsuits, suffer reputational harm from the resulting negative press and struggle through the business uncertainty posed by potential loss of franchise,” NCTA said in its argument to the FCC.

Elizabeth Walden, a public relations manager for Comcast’s New England operations, declined to answer questions, referring a reporter to the NCTA website for information.

Party on, Wayne

Perhaps most enshrined in the public’s mind through Wayne’s World, the Mike Myers and Dana Carvey sketches and films about two metalheads rambling live on a local access channel from their basement, there are today an estimated 3,000 public access channels in cable systems across the country, including 25 nonprofit access media organizations that run a total of 66 channels in Vermont.

Call it the C-SPAN for the Upper Valley: CATV may not always be the most compelling television, but the prosaic functions (and occasional drama) of town government are dutifully covered and appear and replay on either of two channels in addition to being streamed live and archived online.

Hanover Selectboard meetings? CATV cameras are there. Deliberations of the Lebanon City Council? CATV wouldn’t miss it. Hartford Planning Board hearing? Covered. Norwich School Board? All over it. Hartland Selectboard? Yes, that too.

The video recording and telecasting of those public meetings sometimes provide the only complete public record of the event, according to station officials.

“If an issue comes up that matters to people in our towns and we are not recording it, it’s not going to get covered,” said Peg Allen, a Hartford resident and chair of CATV’s board and former ABC television executive.

Twin States coverage

CATV is an anomaly among so-called AMO channels because, like the Dresden School District, it serves towns in two states. And that creates a split in how the public access channel is funded.

In New Hampshire, cable TV operators are franchised by local municipalities, so the town of Hanover and the city of Lebanon each separately franchise Comcast. The statutory limit on franchise fees is capped at 5 percent of revenue, although some municipalities negotiate lower franchise fees. Comcast pays a 5 percent franchise fee in Hanover and a 3.5 percent franchise fee in Lebanon.

But in Vermont, the state’s Public Utility Commission negotiates a 5 percent franchise fee on behalf of municipalities in the state.

CATV runs on a shoestring budget, and funding has not increased in recent years. The channel receives $55,000 annually from Hanover — to increase to $60,000 if voters approve spending at Town Meeting next month — and $130,000 from Lebanon. From Comcast’s Vermont franchise fee, CATV receives $258,000 per year, bringing the channel’s annual funding from franchise fees to $443,000 in 2018.

The channel earns about another $20,000 annually through an assortment of miscellaneous income streams such as running a “video camp” for kids during the summer, selling the DVDs of Dartmouth’s continuing education OSHER lecture program and entry fees from “film slams.”

Girot said CATV grinds out some 1,700 hours of “first-run shows” each year — not just coverage of municipal meetings but lectures at local historical societies and the AVA Gallery and Art Center, Montshire Museum of Science events, Vital Communities forums, high school graduations, the sermons of pastor Chris Goeppner of Riverbank Church in White River Junction, and even Dartmouth College’s undergraduate commencement, among others.

(CATV also films and airs Valley News Digest, a monthly show featuring editors, reporters and photographers from this newspaper discussing big stories that have run recently. Valley News editor Maggie Cassidy, who was not involved in the editing and production of this story, is married to CATV’s studio manager and education outreach coordinator, Chico Eastridge.)

“We’re more than just government meetings,” said Girot, who heads a staff of five full-time employees and eight part-time videographers.

The threat posed by the potential rule change at the FCC is pushing CATV to consider other sources of funding, both Girot and Allen said, such as sponsorships, a mainstay of the public radio and public TV model.

One idea being discussed among CATV’s board members — who include Hanover Town Manager Julia Griffin and Lebanon City Councilor and Scatch co-owner Karen Zook — is approaching brand-name area businesses for help, Allen suggested.

“We could go to some key corporations in the Upper Valley and ask if they would be willing to underwrite coverage of Selectboard and School Board meetings,” Allen said.

“We’re just beginning to look at this,” she said.

John Lippman can be reached at jlippman@vnews.com.




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