Dartmouth Community Television budget could shrink due to federal rules change

Dec 12, 2018

By broadcasting everything from sports to government meetings, Dartmouth Community Television connects residents to their community. But a new rule change proposed by the Federal Communications Commission could end the era of local access television nationwide.

The potential change could drain funding for DCTV and television studios nationwide, according to Keith Thibault, Chairman of the Alliance for Community Media and Director of Fall River Community Media. The Alliance advocates for local community media.

Local access television stations are funded through a franchise fee cable companies pay to municipalities as compensation for using town-owned land to build the necessary infrastructure, like cable lines, to deliver cable service to residents.

The federal Cable Communications Policy Act, passed in 1984, governs these fees, which are used to fund public, educational, and government access (PEG) programming.

Under the proposed rule change, Thibault said cable companies could be allowed to offset franchise fees by deducting certain “in-kind services” from the total granted to cities and towns. However, exactly what cable companies could be allowed to count as “in-kind” is a complete mystery.

“It could be extremely dire, without knowing specifically what cable companies will look to put into in-kind services,” Thibault said.

Like Thibault, Dartmouth Community Television Director of Media Dr. Cynthia Marland is closely monitoring the potential change. DCTV’s budget does not receive a dime of town funding, and is covered by, on average, $450,000 per year from Comcast.

Last year, Marland began preparing DCTV for change by exploring a major rebranding effort to increase DCTV’s visibility in the community and adjust to changing viewership habits.

“I knew there would be some changes just because of many people considering cutting the cord, and what that means for us,” Marland said.

Programming can now be streamed online, and the studio is forming new partnerships with organizations and departments like the Dartmouth Police Department. To adjust to changing media consumption habits, DCTV is staying on top of tech trends — the annual Dartmouth/Fairhaven Thanksgiving football game was live streamed for the first time last month on Facebook.

Despite these changes, however, operations could be significantly impacted by the FCC’s proposed rule change. Even a small reduction in funding could require a careful look at operations.

“We’ll have to look at our services and figure out our needs, and cut back on things that are not as popular,” Marland said.

Depending on if, or what, the FCC clarifies cable companies can use to offset the fee, cable companies could classify anything from the monetary value of local access television channels and equipment, to customer service hubs some companies like Comcast operate in its coverage area as “in-kind services.”

“It could result in a complete elimination of community media, worst case,” Thibault said.

The FCC announced the proposed change in September, and has been soliciting comments from the public on the rule change. The final comment period is set to end on Dec. 14, at which point the FCC could hold a vote on approving or denying the rule change at any time.

“We have no idea when that will be,” Thibault said. “It’s up to the FCC.”

Massachusetts senators Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) authored a letter, along with several other senators, opposing the proposed rule change in October.

"This is a lose-lose for [local franchising authorities] and the residents they serve," wrote the senators. "We fear this proposal will result in a dire drop in resources for PEG channels throughout the nation."

For now, Marland and DCTV officials will be attending an Alliance for Community Media workshop this week with television leaders from across the state to discuss the change, and await word from the FCC.

“I don’t know what is going to happen, what the outcome of the FCC will be,” Marland said. “If the PEG funding is changed, we will respond accordingly.”