Tell the FCC That You Support Your Local Cable Access Station by Dec 14
December 12, 2018
BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS
At DigBoston, my colleagues and I put a lot of effort into working with local community media stations around Greater Boston. Because they are the heart and soul of grassroots democratic public broadcasting in the United States. And because we get so much out of hanging out with their staff and members that we just love them to pieces.
Somerville Media Center, Cambridge Community Television, Brookline Interactive Group, Malden Access Television, Boston Neighborhood Network, roughly 300 other stations around Massachusetts, and over 1500 nationwide provide a multitude of useful services to the cities and towns they’re based in. Perhaps better known by the older appellations “cable access stations” or “PEG (public, education, and government) access stations,” they broadcast city government meetings, public school events, and neighborhood happenings of all kinds. Something no other media institution does anywhere near as consistently.
In addition, many community stations allow literally anyone in their locales to walk in off the street and get trained to make media of their own—on increasingly sophisticated equipment, for cheap or even free—amounting to tens of thousands of homegrown productions of every conceivable description every year. Effectively creating the only US broadcast alternative where free speech, hard won in running legal battles all the way up to the Supreme Court, is taken very seriously. They are generally member-driven and run by small staffs of extremely committed experts. A fair number of whom were originally trained at community media stations when they were kids. As were many staffers at major media outlets to this day.
For all that great work, such stations require very little money to run. Federal regulation and laws enacted since the early 1970s have created a system in which cable companies like Comcast have to negotiate franchise fees with cities and towns for the privilege of laying their cables on public streets. The maximum annual franchise fee was codified in the federal Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984, 47 U.S. Code § 542 (b): “For any twelve-month period, the franchise fees paid by a cable operator with respect to any cable system shall not exceed 5 percent of such cable operator’s gross revenues derived in such period from the operation of the cable system to provide cable services.”
Some of the resulting funds can then be used to run community media stations. Local governments can also negotiate for other things, too—including what are called “cable-related, in-kind contributions” like capital expenses for studio facilities and broadcasting equipment. Another important concession the cable companies have to provide local governments is the channels that the stations broadcast on. This helps the stations’ bottom line by relieving them of the cost of leasing those channels. Which does mean that cable companies lose whatever profits they might have otherwise made on those channels.
Together the franchise fee and the in-kind contributions provide most of each station’s annual operating budget and physical plant—and the free cable channels help keep costs low. Though many community media stations still have to raise extra money to make ends meet every year by charging dues to members who can afford to pay, crowdfunding, and applying for grants. Like PBS or NPR on a smaller scale.
Unfortunately, since the original Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules mandating the establishment of such stations in many municipalities, the cable industry has been trying to eliminate them. In the interest of making even vaster profits than they already gouge from consumers. First by legal challenges culminating in the 1979 Supreme Court decision FCC v. Midwest Video Corp. that struck down the earlier cable access rules and directly resulted in the 1984 cable act as a “compromise” between community media stations and the cable industry. And later by successful lobbying campaigns to give states the sole power to negotiate franchise fees for all their cities and towns in the interest of “efficiency” (read: worse deals than many of those municipalities had been negotiating on their own). Which is how the system currently works in many states—though not, happily, in Massachusetts.
Further, as new monopoly telecom companies like Verizon arose (both ironically and predictably) after the government breakup of the old AT&T telephone monopoly in the 1980s, they began expanding well beyond their core telephone businesses. Seeing cable television as a growing market, they successfully lobbied for provisions in the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 that allowed them to provide cable service as well. This caused the cable companies to bring even more political pressure to bear to end the franchise fee system as “unfair”—since the telecoms aren’t covered by the 1984 cable act and don’t have to pay the fees that support community media stations.
Also, the landmark global communications advance represented by the internet has further eroded the position of community media stations in some respects over that same period by providing other ways for Americans and immigrants alike to create their own media programming and reach audiences all over the world. Though usually not local audiences of the size and quality that community media stations can provide.
Meanwhile, the cable industry has continued to do its level best to shrink the number of community media stations with all kinds of crafty business and policy tricks. For example, Comcast’s practice of refusing to list the schedule of community media stations in its program guide—which drastically reduces the local audience for each station—makes it easier for the cable giant to make the case to get rid of the legal mandate to fund those stations through the franchise fee.
Now, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai—a former Verizon lobbyist who is the living embodiment of “regulatory capture” (the control of a government regulatory agency by the very industry it’s supposed to regulate) and who, it must be said, is an Obama appointee—is moving in for the kill. Fresh off his successful assault on net neutrality. Another anti-democratic communications move that virtually no one supported… except the cable and telecom industries.
On Sept 25, under Pai’s watch, the four FCC commissioners (three of whom are Republicans, with one seat on the five member commission remaining empty thanks to Trump administration politicking) released an official document snappily entitled the “Second Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in Implementation of Section 621(a)(1) of the Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984 as Amended by the Cable Television Consumer Protection and Competition Act of 1992, MB Docket 05-311.” Also known as the “Second FNPRM.” Or, for the purposes of this editorial, the “FNPRM.”
If the FCC enacts the FNPRM, cities, towns, and states (where applicable) will no longer be able to negotiate up to a 5 percent franchise fee plus the aforementioned cable-related, in-kind contributions like studios and other necessary infrastructure for community media stations. Instead those governments will be forced to allow cable companies to assign a “fair market value” to the channels it provides community stations and deduct that amount from the franchise fees that keep them going. The companies will also be allowed to catalog a wide variety of cable-related, in-kind contributions to cities and towns and deduct those from the fees, too. Including some contributions related to the stations, according to analysis by the Community Media Center of Marin in California. And it turns out that typical capital costs for community stations are only a fraction of the total in-kind contributions that cable companies historically agreed to provide to municipalities in exchange for using public rights of way for their cables. Cities and towns often have important civic buildings like schools and fire stations connected with cables and equipment provided by the companies that have been used for a variety of important purposes—including emergency services—for decades. Taking those costs off the top of the franchise fees will be significant indeed.
As proposed, the FNPRM’s broad definition of all “cable-related, in-kind contributions” other than PEG capital costs and build-out requirements could be interpreted as “franchise fees,” which could result in: • Cable companies no longer paying the typical five percent franchise fees permitted by federal law. • Cable companies using local rights-of-way for any purpose, regardless of the terms of the franchise agreement, and avoiding paying their fair compensation to the local government for the use of funded assets in the rights-of-way. • Significant reductions in cable franchise fees, depending on how the “fair market” value for PEG capacity and transmission is calculated within a given jurisdiction. This proposed change would result in PEG programming being drastically reduced, if not eliminated altogether in most jurisdictions.
In practice, community media station advocates are saying that the FNPRM will quickly result in a loss of a significant portion of annual revenue for their entire sector. Which will cause many stations to drastically reduce their services… or cease operations entirely.
But local government officials like Mayor Ashman are saying that the effect on cities and towns overall will be even worse than the effect on the stations. Because as my longtime colleague Fred Johnson—noted community media policy maven and documentary filmmaker—said to me in a short interview for this editorial, “This is about seizing power and treasure from the cities.” If the FNPRM is enacted by the FCC, it will be allowing the cable companies to fundamentally devalue the use of public rights of way that have allowed them to make massive profits—by cutting into franchise fee revenue that is already far lower than it should be.
Incidentally, the FNPRM also doubles down on the part of the FCC rule trashing net neutrality that claims lower levels of government can’t reintroduce that reform by “prohibiting [cities, towns, and states] from using their video franchising authority to regulate the provision of most non-cable services, such as broadband Internet access service, offered over a cable system by an incumbent cable operator.” But, brevity being the soul of wit, I’ll have to address that issue another day.
In any case, to stop all that bad stuff from happening, DigBoston calls on our loyal audience to contact the FCC by this Friday, Dec 14, and join with thousands of other people around the country in demanding that the powerful agency do what’s best for American democracy and leave cable access franchise fees alone.
It’s going to be an uphill fight in the current political climate. But with all of your help, community media stations can survive and thrive for decades to come. And municipalities will be much better off, too.
Jason Pramas is executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston.
More than 200 Tufts University students, faculty, and allies from surrounding communities held a march and demonstration last week to protest a new campus housing policy, according to the Boston Herald. Over the summer, the Tufts administration announced that its annual lottery system for on-campus housing during each academic year would be heavily modified to establish “14 different tiers, ranging from $8,220 to $10,219 a year, in contrast to the $7,934 students currently pay.”
According to a recent press release from the Tufts Housing League (THL), Tufts Student Action, and several other student groups: “The administration’s tiered housing proposal will effectively segregate dorms by income levels. Students able to afford the $2,000-a-year difference will live in the nicest dorms, while low-income students, middle-income students, and students on financial aid will opt to live in old dorms without kitchens—or be forced to live off-campus and exacerbate the lack of affordable housing in the Somerville and Medford communities. This classist pricing plan reflects the same gentrifying process that the university is imposing on the surrounding communities.…”
The student activists are demanding that “Tufts end this policy, commit to building a new dorm, and create a democratic decision-making structure.” They point out that the university has already been accepting more students than it can house and that this move will only force more students off-campus where they will put even more pressure on an overburdened local housing market. Pushing rental, condo, and house prices even further skyward.
There is clearly a good deal of student resentment about the move given that the release explains that “less than 24 hours after the initial tiered housing announcement was sent to students on July 23, THL put out a statement signed by 29 student groups and a petition which included 1,582 signatures (over 1,000 garnered in the first 48 hours alone).”
Tufts spokesman Patrick Collins told the Herald that “the school is simply following the footsteps of Bay State colleges.” He then “acknowledged some students would see an increase in housing costs” but said that student aid would be adjusted no matter what kind of housing they selected.
A quick glance at the “Tufts plans to move to a more expensive tiered housing system, because screw you” discussion on the /r/Tufts subreddit provides a window into informed student opinion on the university position. According to anonymous poster “75812”: “They don’t increase financial aid grants in proportion to cost increases, though they always claim that the ability to pay stays the same. In reality they give you more loans, and in some cases ‘review your need’ and then cut your aid entirely. A lot of my friends, particularly those involved in student organizing (hmmmmmmm) have lost all their aid and had to transfer. But it’s okay because 50k in loans meets 100% of your demonstrated need, even though you’ll be a serf for ten years! Many students on financial aid work two or three campus jobs, while others work nearly full time at off campus shops and restaurants.”
The THL’s “Coalition Statement Opposing the Tufts Administration’s Plan to Implement Tiered Housing Prices” echos that sentiment: “Tiered pricing would be a betrayal of low-income students, yet another indication, along with perpetually rising tuition and paltry student resources, that the administration does not care about them. This policy would invariably lead to economic segregation on campus as richer students congregate in the more expensive dorms and lower-income and middle-class students are left with the cheaper, less comfortable housing units. Despite claims to the contrary, students on financial aid may be blocked from higher-cost housing, either by complicated or inadequate reimbursement policy or by self selection.”
Unsurprisingly, the lived experience of on-campus financial aid students at an elite school (in terms of its $73,500 sticker price this academic year at least) like Tufts is a far cry from administration public relations speak on matters like housing. So, I think the activists are doing a fine job of researching the policy crisis the school’s action is creating and proposing an eminently reasonable solution: scrap the plan and build at least one new dorm at speed.
This is an old problem in Boston and environs given how many institutions of higher learning we have in the area. In fact, Boston University under the leadership of the infamous John Silber was doing pretty much the same thing when I started school there in 1984. Over-accepting students to get the (bloated) tuition and (considerable) federal loan monies that came with them, and then placing literally hundreds of the new arrivals who we called “nomads” into hotel rooms for at least a semester or two. Until the usual forces of attrition did their job, and brought student numbers down to what would fit in the already packed dorms. Which only worked after floor lounges were converted to dorm rooms. The main aspect of that past crisis that differs from the current imbroglio at Tufts was that BU did not have a tiered dorm system at that time.
Over the intervening decades, big private schools like BU and Northeastern have gradually built more dorms and mandated that students stay in dorms at least the first year or two—under pressure from abutting neighborhoods and city governments. But they still play an outsized role in causing our region’s ongoing housing crisis.
All our wildly expensive major universities—Tufts, MIT, and Harvard first among them—make the situation even worse than it would otherwise be by attracting very wealthy students in significant numbers to move to the Boston area. Who then distort the housing market on their own by offering landlords mountains of cash on demand for properties that would have once rented or sold for far less.
So it’s great to see a major coalition of students in the very heart of this system push back against something that will throw gasoline on the fire of bad housing policy at a school like Tufts.
However, I will add (as I have many times before) that we’re only going to fix all the problems that our existing university system creates—including housing crises—when we finally admit that the entire American higher education system is already public due to massive government subsidies at every level, and make the governance of all colleges public as well. While mandating university education as a right in a new K-20 system—coupled with expanded lifelong educational opportunities. All funded directly out of taxes like K-12 ed is now. Though preferably through income taxes, not property taxes… to ensure much more equality in educational outcome.
That’s way too tall an order for a bunch of student activists at one school to take on given everything they’ll have to do to win their current housing fight. As such, I’m just putting it out there for now.
Still, if enough student activists at enough colleges get behind the demand for federal higher ed reform it could happen overnight. And our society would be the better for it, when every student born in this country and every immigrant student besides is able to go all the way to grad school without paying a dime beyond taxes everyone pays anyway. Without, therefore, any of the terrible student debt that is crushing the life out of millions of former college students—young and old.
Sure, we’ll have to scrap a few government weapons programs to cover the new costs. And ludicrously large college “endowments”—like Tufts’ $1.8 billion war chest as of June 2017—that exist in no small part because schools get so much public money, would naturally need to be seized by the feds to help provide solid college educations for all who want one. But that’s a (super fun) discussion for another day.
For now, best wishes to the Tufts student activists. Hope you all force your administration to build a much-needed new dorm, and move from strength to strength in your campaign to make your school’s housing policy more fair for its campus community and surrounding communities alike.
Apparent Horizon—winner of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2018 Best Political Column award—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.