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As Consumer Viewing Habits Change, Public Access Channels Worry About Funding

Howard Weiss-Tisman
Brattleboro Community TV Content Manager Jeff Mastroianni sits in the studio while airing a Select Board meeting live on one of the station's two public access channels.

Comcast's Certificate of Public Good expires at the end of 2016 and the Public Service Board will be starting hearings this month. Vermont’s public access television stations say they have a lot riding on Comcast cable company’s application to renew its certificate.

The company provides funding for 22 of the state's 26 public access stations and station directors say they want to start a conversation about how the company helps pay for public access.

As the Brattleboro selectboard was getting ready to start a meeting recently, Community Television Content Manager Jeff Mastroianni was sitting behind thousands of dollars worth of mixers, monitors and controls.

Comcast paid for most of the equipment, and the company covers Mastroianni's salary, as well as the other three paid staff members at the station.

State Public Service Board rules require the cable company to fund 22 public, educational and governmental, or PEG, access stations in Vermont.
The amount of money Comcast pays to the stations is based on the number of customers who use cable TV service in the station's coverage area.

But in the coming years, as more people are expected to stream their entertainment through services like Hulu, YouTube and Netflix, the number of traditional cable customers is anticipated to drop.

And PEG station managers are wondering how they'll be able to survive in this new environment.

Scott Campitelli is with Vermont Access Network, the organization that represents Vermont's PEG stations in the Public Service Board hearings.

He says the upcoming hearings will give the public access stations a chance to start talking about the potential loss of revenue as more customers stream their entertainment over the internet instead through traditional cable.

"The Certificate of Public Good process is absolutely the place to bring this up," he said. "I think there's definitely the opportunity for those of us in the Vermont Access Network to advocate for revenue from Internet, and even revenue from other telecom providers in the state of Vermont."

Campitelli says Vermont Access Network is especially concerned about some of the smaller community access stations.

His station in Burlington, and larger stations like the one in Brattleboro have more options to seek donations and grants and to charge for some video and editing services.

But if cable revenues drop, stations in places like Hardwick, Woodstock and Windsor may have a harder time surviving.

There are other issues that will be addressed during the CPG hearings: Vermont's PEG stations want access to high definition channels on the Comcast network, and Comcast also currently doesn't let the stations publish their programming guides so viewers can't easily record shows or see what programs are airing on the channel.

Brattleboro Community Television Executive Director Cor Trowbridge says it is going to be much easier to settle those issues than it will be to figure out a way to replace the anticipated drop in cable revenue.

"There's nothing I can do about the global trend of cord cutting," Trowbridge said. "Everybody has changed how they use media, how they consume media. The FCC has to do something about that. The Internet is a giant behemoth that nobody has put any laws around."

"Everybody has changed how they use media, how they consume media. The FCC has to do something about that. The Internet is a giant behemoth that nobody has put any laws around." - Cor Trowbridge, Brattleboro Community Television

Jim Porter, Vermont director of telecom and connectivity says PEG budgets have not yet seen a decrease in cable revenue, though he acknowledges it is a trend that will likely hit Vermont in the future.

"Certainly across the country we've seen cable subscribers actually declining," says Porter. "I'm not sure that's happened in Vermont yet, but certainly as more and more people are watching their video programming through the Internet and not through cable that certainly will provide a funding challenge for the public access stations."

Porter says federal law prevents states from regulating broadband and that it will be up to Washington to come up with a way for states to tap into that funding source.

BCTV Production Manager Roland Boyden sets up video equipment in the Select Board Meeting Room before a live broadcast.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR

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"In Vermont the stations are funded to the maximum amount allowed under federal law, and I'm not sure that the state has the jurisdiction to increase that," he said. "At this point we cannot take the revenues from broadband. This situation is ultimately going to have to be settled by Congress. And the taxing of broadband is a huge issue, that will certainly encompass the public access in the future."

Comcast, one of the largest telecommunication companies in the world, declined to be interviewed for this story.

In an email message senior public relations director Laura Crisco said the company considers the public access stations partners in its efforts to quote "provide meaningful public, educational and government programming."

Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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