Bill seeks to bolster local access revenue streams


Bill seeks to bolster local access revenue streams
Karen Henderson, general manager of Westborough TV, tapes the dedication of the new veterans’ monument at Minuteman Park on April 15. (Photo/Maureen Sullivan)

REGION – What happens when cable customers “cut the cord?”

It may mean lower bills and access to more programs via livestream, but it also means lower revenues for local cable access studios.

And that could lead to fewer programs produced by and for residents.

A bill currently in the State House would add livestream services to the revenue sources that provide funding for cable access programming.

A similar bill filed last year did not come to a vote.

A ‘scary time’ for local access studios

For the past five years, revenues to keep Westborough TV operating have declined, as cable customers opt to switch to livestreaming services.

“The viewing habits have shifted, and funding should shift as well,” said Karen Henderson, the general manager of Westborough TV.

She said revenues from cable providers, such as Comcast and Verizon, have dipped about 35% over the past five years.

“Cable subscriptions is how local access is paid in Westborough,” said Henderson.

In Shrewsbury, Executive Director for Shrewsbury Media Connection (SMC) Marc Serra said their cable revenue payments have decreased by 22% in the last five years.

“This is not surprising. SELCO has stated that they have lost 50% of their TV customers in the last decade,” said Serra.

As part of their agreement with SELCO and the Select Board, SMC is to receive 4.25% of cable TV-related revenue.

“It only makes sense that as customers cut the cord and look elsewhere for their content, that our revenue is directly impacted,” he said.

In Marlborough, WMCT-TV is the beneficiary of contracts between the city and the local cable providers, Comcast and Verizon Fios. As part of the contracts, there’s a small tax on residents’ cable bills that is collected and issued to the city.

Executive Director Ryan Malyar said WMCT makes an annual appeal to appropriate funds to allow them to operate.

“The number of cable subscribers has been decreasing rapidly in recent years with folks ‘cutting the cord’ in favor of Over the Top (OTT) streaming services such as Hulu, Netflix, Youtube TV, Disney +… this list goes on. This is a scary time for community television studios,” he added.

About the bill

The bill, “An act to modernize funding for community media programming,” is now with the Joint Committee on Advanced Information Technology, the Internet and Cybersecurity; it is chaired by state Sen. Michael Moore (D-Millbury) whose district includes Grafton, Shrewsbury and Westborough.

“I have long been a supporter of local cable access programs because I believe they provide an invaluable service to their communities such as informing the public of local events, covering important news stories, and providing residents with a platform to share their thoughts and ideas. At a time where more and more local news outlets and media sources are disappearing every year, these programs are more critical than ever,” said Moore.

“[The act] employs a clever and unique method of raising money to fund these programs without creating a significant new tax burden for everyday Bay Staters. As with all bills in the committee, the committee will hold a public hearing on the bill, and I look forward to the opportunity to hear from relevant stakeholders. While I can’t guarantee how or when this bill will move out of committee, I am very interested in this topic and in finding creative ways to fund local cable access programs,” he added.

State Rep. Hannah Kane, Rep. Danielle Gregoire, Rep. Carmine Gentile, Rep. David Muradian, Rep. Kate Donaghue, Sen. Jamie Eldridge, Sen. Robyn Kennedy and Moore are among the co-sponsors.

Under the bill, a streaming entertainment operator would pay an assessment equal to 5% of its gross annual revenues derived from the sale or provision of streaming services to individuals and businesses in the state.

The bill could be considered over the summer. Locally, cable access providers voiced their support.

“I’m in favor of the bill. Over the last few years people have worried about PEG [public, educational and government] access going away as consumers cut the cable cord,” said Bob DeToma, digital media manager for Grafton Community TV. “This bill may help calm those fears. Now that people have become used to government-streaming meetings, they will want to keep that source of government information flowing.”

Serra said it would go a “long way” to restore them to previous funding.

“Public, educational and government access channels deliver invaluable public programming on a daily basis, commercial-free and with the sole purpose of informing and educating our community,” he said. “As local budgets tighten and content delivery methods change, I feel it’s imperative to ensure that our local access channels are able to continue to reflect local interests and bring diverse programming to the public.

“Our government access channel is, without question, an important exercise of self-governance. It allows residents to watch their leaders do their community’s business. We can then form our own opinions and become better-informed voters.

“As residents ‘cut the cord’ and move to streaming services, the very nature and survival of PEG access is threatened in a profound way. We’ve been here since the 80s providing voices to the voiceless, capturing town events, highlighting our student athletes, and providing transparency to local government. We hope it’s not a case of you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.”

Meanwhile, Malyar said it was exciting to see the bill discussed again, noting there have been drafts in the past that didn’t get traction.

He said, “Observing the decline in revenue over recent years has been worrisome. I have many colleagues in the field who left community television to pursue other work as they were anticipating a total collapse of the industry.

“The prospect of an additional revenue source for WMCT-TV is invigorating. As the bill is currently written, this would also be a new revenue stream to benefit the city as well. I am glad to see support from Marlborough’s State Rep. Danielle Gregoire, who has been a steadfast supporter of the work we do at WMCT.”

The House bill can be found here. Its senate counterpart can be found here.


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