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Future In Doubt For Cable Access Channels

The Federal Communications Commission has proposed cutting the amount cable television companies are required to pay for public access channels that cover local government meetings and allow residents to create their own programs.

Cable operators pay as much as 5 percent of their revenues each year as a franchise fee, money that cities and towns can use for localized channels. The rule change would allow companies to deduct in-kind contributions to the community from those fees. The final day for public comment on the draft rule is Friday, Dec. 14.

Scott Mercer, executive director of Access Framingham, said the city’s public access channel could not operate without funding from the franchise fee. Currently, he has a $750,000 budget and a staff of nine.

“You have all these other channels, but you don’t control any of those channels, and those channels aren’t necessarily interested in what we call hyper-local information,” Mercer told WGBH News as he stood in the middle of his television studio. “You have newspapers that are going by the wayside, and what we have here is a place you can go to and talk about anything you want.”

Not everyone thinks the proposed change is a bad idea. Deborah Collier, technology and telecommunications policy director for Citizens Against Government Waste, suggested the change could save cable subscribers money.

“What is often missed in the discussion of local cable franchise fees is that these additional costs to operate are usually passed on to the consumer in the form of higher cable rates,” Collier said in a statement to WGBH News. “The FCC is now acting to mitigate these hidden taxes by clarifying that the 5 percent cap applies to all cable-related, in-kind contributions. The intended result of the FCC’s action is to lower cable rates for consumers, while protecting public educational and governmental channels.”

Access Framingham, which produces 30 original programs, is just one example of a public access channel in Massachusetts. In cities and towns across the state, access cameras from about 200 local operations capture local events, including moments at public meetings that might otherwise go unnoticed among people not in attendance.

One example Mercer pointed to was a Framingham City Council meeting in August. During the public comment period, a resident compared the city’s African-American Mayor Yvonne Spicer to Robert Mugabe, former prime minister of Zimbabwe known for his authoritarian rule and poor governance of the southern African country.

Those comments sparked outrage among some in the city’s black community because they went unchallenged — on camera. The comments forced City Council President Dennis Giombetti to eventually apologize.

“I think that’s a perfect example,” Mercer said. “You want to talk about transparency, you want to know what your government is doing, and you want to know what your residents are thinking. This is exactly what you need.”

In Framingham, the access channel also helps students at Framingham High School produce a daily news program called “Flyer News.” Students learn how to put together a newscast.

“I’ve learned how to shoot, edit and produce videos,” Matt Noah, a senior at the high school who wants to be a television broadcaster, told WGBH News in the school’s brightly-lit studio.

School Superintendent Robert Tremblay wrote a letter the FCC urging its members to keep the funding intact. Tremblay said the training the students get in partnership with Access Framingham is invaluable.

Read more: Is Community Access TV On The FCC Chopping Block?

“We’ve just begun to expand our offerings to the middle school level to really foster an interest in television production and video production,” Tremblay said. “It’s really a driver for much of our curriculum. Much of what we do in school what makes it exciting to learn is the hands-on application.”

Mercer said he is worried about what will happen if cable access goes away.

“This is one of those things you may not use. You may not even know it exists,” Mercer said. “But when you wake up and found out it was gone, that’s when you’re going to have a sense of urgency because you will have no platform.”

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