‘What if’ Community TV was embraced by Cable TV?

For over five decades, cable companies have not embraced Community TV a.k.a. Public Education Government Access TV (P.E.G.)

In the 1960s, Cable Cowboys envisioned that an alternative to broadcast TV could be their gold rush. For many it was. They secured air rights and put up poles and lines in communities across America. There are now a few dominant cable television corporations, and several midsize, each with geographically limited service areas. The geography is not limited. Mergers and acquisitions have created giants such as Comcast Corporation with footprints in many states.

Digital TV |  The new gold rush is ‘digital TV’. What digital television content providers have in common is the move to streaming services. Cable TV cord-cutters decrease direct cable TV profits, concurrently reducing the expense of community TV. However, cable companies often retain the cable TV cord-cutters as Internet service customers, as there are many people that love watching TV and they even get a full motion wall mounts to watch it more comfortably.

Cord cutters are typically revolting against the high cost of premium packages and their restrictions on choice. But they all need the Internet and a device to stream the content they choose to view. Much of the streamed content, unless provided via satellite, uses the same infrastructure (air rights and poles) as cable TV.

Cable TV corporations are now branding as “Internet Service Providers’. All are represented by trade associations, lobbyists and corporate attorneys. More than $230 million was spent on lobbying and political donations during the 116th Congress (2019), targeted at expanding broadband with government infrastructure investments. Another goal for cable lobbyists and lawyers is the elimination of community TV, or at a minimum, decreasing its expense.

To put it another way:

Cable lawyers are charged with bullying the cable companies way out of  obligation to pay for air rights for cable TV; while concurrently seeking billions in government support for 5G infrastructure build out.

An unintended consequence of cable TV cord cutting by consumers is that they unknowingly put deep cuts into their local community TV station’s life-lines. Here is where the lawyers come in to play. They keep the focus of the arguments on the technical language in the laws; language used at the birth of the industry. They fail to concede that the intent of the Cable Acts were to establish payment to communities for air rights—permission to put poles on every street and make a profit.

The last huge and successful push in Connecticut to minimize cable companies out-of-pocket costs for P.E.G. happened in 1995. The passage of PA 95-150 created a statewide franchise, one of the first in the nation. The Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA), it was DEEP at the time, became directly responsible for managing community TV compensation as part of their oversight of all functional aspects of cable TV (CATV) as a utility.

Consequences of 1995 Statewide Franchise | The 1995 law, and subsequent regulations, eliminated the in depth review of actual costs, capital investment in local communities, and overall provisions of service by the cable companies including community TV. It lessened many corporate costs, including legal overhead of the franchise renewal process, as well as any substantive burden of proof of quality services. Local input regarding services, and the capabilities of community TV was muted; some would say “eliminated.” The 1995 Act was a huge win for cable companies. It did, however, retain community TV in every community in Connecticut based on the models adopted in the original franchise agreements. A major oversight in 1995 was that no accommodations were made for the local communities that had NOT recently renewed their franchise. Those with recent renewals have had capacity and financial advantages over their neighbors to this day.

There was another shake-up to the community TV movement in 2007 in which language was central to the discussion and outcomes PA 07-253.  At that time AT&T sought a state-wide franchise as an IPTV provider in part to shed responsibility for air rights payments. This shake-up grandfathered franchise areas but alted renewal, franchise by franchise

At this time an Annual Community Access Support Review is conducted. This process has been a cut & past exercise resulting in a CPI index increase in subscriber fee payments until 2021, the year the index increased enough to argue about.  Community Access Providers, Cable Companies, and Advisory Councils are to file reports to theses Dockets: Here is the references from 2015 to 2021: The Public Utilities Regulatory Authority Annual Community Access Support Review 15-01-17, 16-01-17, 17-01-09, 18-01-32, 19-02-15, 20-01-09 , 21-02-52

Cable TV cord cutting is slowly defunding community TV stations upwards to 40%.

Is it all about the money?

As every household knows, merchandise and service costs have risen. Until 2021, the CPI has been low; therefore, cable companies had no significant basis to object to fee increases. However, this year, they suggested, using the language of the regulations, that there be an extensive review of ‘what community media television providers’ are providing and their ‘value’?

In 2020, certain Community TV providers requested a docket be open regarding treating all Multichannel Video Programming Distributors in the same manner as cable TV (Docket 20-01-34). MVPD essentially refers to all manner of getting content on your television. The outcome favored the direct meaning of ‘cable’; thereby; outweighing the air rights intent of federal cable law. The decision also signaled that the only mechanism for change was legislative.

DOCKET NO. 21-07-26 | Is the annual review of community TV funding currently underway. It has become a cumbersome docket. In this review, PURA Commissioners need to ascertain if the historic use of CPI will be applied to subscriber payments payable to Cable Access Providers by cable companies.  Or, if there are mitigating circumstance such as cord-cutting to take alternative action to increase, or decrease, or adjust payments. According to cable company representatives, only a portion of the cost of community TV is passed through to customers on the bill as a franchise fee. This docket includes bills showing the franchise fee is one of the smallest fees on cable TV bills (often less than 50 cents a month).

What has been an administrative exercise for decades, adjusting per subscriber payments payable by cable companies, is now a battle ground. This docket has reopened wounds from 1995 and provided some transparency on the impact of cord-cutting in local communities. It has provided very little insight into the digital landscape as content distribution changes.  More importantly, it has given rise to discrediting community TV through inference and procedural maneuvering by cable company attorneys.

This docket can not directly address the air rights uses of cable companies, or the responsibility of cable companies to cover reasonable capital investments by local communities; all things references in this inquiry. It could, however, determine that a full review of the data collected by PURA since the 1995 law be the basis on which to reform the process in the public interest. An independent, or representative group, could be designated to do the analysis. My suggestion would be a joint contract with nonprofit data analysis organizations. There is one in New Haven and Hartford. No one should have a commercial incentive in any next step and bias is a valid concern.

Confounded by Covid

There was a public hearing via Zoom on Jan 31st. Many individuals, including myself, were listening to the proceedings (as we multi-tasked). An opportunity for public comment was extended at the beginning of the session. No one offered comments. I assumed public comments would be opened again after the planned testimony. Not so.

For more than four hours, the participant interactions were a potpourri of flagrant, confrontational, disparaging, lambasting, obsequious, confusing, uniformed; culminating (in my opinion) in embarrassing, rather than substantive contributions to the public discourse. The proceeding was primarily testimony from cable companies, and self-appointed representatives of the community TV movement.

The roles in this public exchange were all too familiar and (in my opinion) much of the discussion, misdirected. Absent were the community TV representatives whose doors did not close, whose production did not lessen during COVID, who also lost revenue.

The community TV providers ascribed importance to their existence with hyperbole, self-affirmations of years of existence; and focused their contributions to the conversation on losses due to cord-cutting.

The cable companies tried to redirect the conversation to the value of Community TV. Some went as far as to suggest demonstration of community TV’s relevance is nothing but ‘anecdotal’. This is actually true. We are one story at a time. The only data available to community stations is qualitative. Any discussion of value should align with the purpose of community media, a narrowcast of hyper-local citizen media, transparency in government, a partial answer to the digital divide and life-long learning. A case could be made that failure to embrace our unique form of content makes it easier for cord-cutters to choose cutting over community. Value is a very subjective word. The inference that viewer counts measure the worth of community media is an age old tactic. Viewership counts is a whole other conversation.

To put it simply, the hearing was not additive. Nothing new was contributed, no consensus was presented, and no true advocacy for our work was apparent. Suggestion of a collaborative effort to better our mutual service in the public interest was not identified. There was no clear call to action, not even to use the CPI as issued, to update subscriber fees as a minimum outcome.

Conn. Gen. Stat. § 16-331a(k) and §§ 16-331a-1 et seq. of the Regulations of Connecticut State Agencies requires the Authority to conduct an annual proceeding to adjust community access funding to reflect consumer price index change.

Industry lobbyist, including New England Cable TV Association, Inc., NECTA filed correspondence representing the companies purse strings. Their testimony asserts cable fees’ are television specific, not applicable to Internet services, and the CPI increase should be scrutinized based on the ‘value’ of Community TV in the community.

Going on The Record

Among my duties As the administrator of WPAA-TV, I am responsible for monitoring and responding to various dockets inclusive of filing of an annual report (2021) about what we do with our community. The 2021 Annual Community Access Support Review docket has required multiple replies. We were directly invoked to reply a few times. This was so with questions promulgated by the Office of Consumer Counsel (OCC) regarding amount of, and impact of, losses in cable subscriber fees.[1] [2] [3] WPAA-TV was also directed to reply to Comcast on Feb 4th. It did not go unnoticed that the entity with the staff —the cable company —failed to designate the intended respondents correctly in the docket. Our franchise was not listed and all respondents were linked to all referenced franchise areas. Similarly, these questions may not reach all the designated responders because the service list is faulty. I share this fact, in part, to demonstrate the action by Comcast was to invoke a burden on the proceedings and the little guys, community TV providers.

Today, February 4th,  I was compelled to OBJECT to being burdened with questions posed by Comcast, one of two cable providers serving Wallingford.

My reply to Comcast in PURA DOCKET NO. 21-07-26 follows. For context, an excerpt of the Comcast filing is shown after my objection. Of note, this docket was to be nearing conclusion.

Objection To “first set of interrogatories by Comcast” filed Feb 4

Dear Secretary Gaudiosi:

Understanding that Comcast was granted the opportunity to file interrogatories in the public hearing 01.31.2022, I want to express an Objection to this set of interrogatories and any further interrogatories.

Why? Several reasons, but foremost is that this information is in the public record in Annual Reports.* Additionally, data Is in a recent docket on the PEGPETIA process [07‐10‐11RE01] as well as in the responses to the OCC interrogatories in this docket. There is considerable similarity to the Annual Report and these questions. (PURA Report Form)

On behalf of all community TV staff and volunteers, as I am both, we are not in any position to retrieve, compile and summarize data for these questions. Several entities identified to respond to this request have yet to engage in the docket. I suggest that it is not out of disinterest but rather due to inability. Others have testified about staff shortages. Even the OCC referred to the burden of data collection in the recent public hearing. Others of us are too aware of improprieties, injustices, and inadequacies not to engage—even if our days extend into evenings and weekends.

Indeed, a thorough analysis of the data identified in these questions is warranted. But, that is a research project, which in my opinion needs to be staffed and have accountability to report to PURA and the legislature. Perhaps, a conclusion to study can be set forth in this docket.

There are blemishes to be found on both sides of this uncomfortable marriage between cable companies and the community media enablers. The landscape has changed but the intent of the Cable Act remains more relevant than ever. Collectively, we are failing to provide our communities with adequate benefits from use of the airways. There are several approaches to the work, as well as decades of evidence to review what works and what does not. In my opinion, this docket can make some reparations. Specifically, it can address the disenfranchising of some communities which occurred in 1995 when the state law did not account for various stages of ‘franchise renewals’. Herein, selective CPI adjustments can now be a stop gap.

The inference that viewer counts are the measure of our value is far from accurate. Hyper-local means one-person at a time: a producer so passionate about a topic that hours, days, weeks or years are invested to show others why, a senior participating in a weekly church service on TV from the comfort of their home, a youth who completes the census form as ‘white’ can find a place to express their uncertainty because they are ‘other’, an addict can tune in to testimony on TV when they need a meeting, or listen when redistributed as a podcast, or a child can imagine making movies and realize that dream. There is still the magic of “I was on TV”, despite of the ubiquity of the Internet. Community media is about community connectivity, tools & stage, training and uplifting voices—not cablecast views.

In the public hearing, Attorney Bogan inferred that anecdotal and qualitative data is irrelevant. Yet, government meeting transparency has value in the moment and as archival records. A study might conclude that educational programming has a better means of delivery, or can be a better portal, for other investments in content by our government as lifelong learning.

Why the cable companies across the nation have chosen to disregard the opportunities community television can provide, ‘working together’ with community advocates, is baffling. With years of lack of intentional investment, our collective value has diminished. We remain relevant in so many ways partly because we change lives one person at a time. A true examination of the public record, the proprietary withheld data, and viewer, producer and staff interviews, could make the cable tv investment in community media life-changing for many,

So in conclusion, I object to this request by Comcast and further ask the commissioners to reassess the approval for interrogatories as they likely did not foresee this burden in data collection. In seeking clarification with Comcast, they indicated a desire to have this data as part of this docket. If such a need exists, a list of 2016-2021 Annual Report Dockets and the PEGPETIA process evaluation docket, could be entered into the record to meet that need.
Sincerely,

Susan Huizenga
Volunteer Executive Director
WPAA-TV and Community Media Center
* WPAA-TV Annual Reports our accumulated here


STATE OF CONNECTICUT PUBLIC UTILITIES REGULATORY AUTHORITY
RE: THE PUBLIC UTILITIES REGULATORY AUTHORITY ANNUAL COMMUNITY ACCESS SUPPORT REVIEW : DOCKET NO. 21-07-26

FEBRUARY 4, 2022
COMCAST OF CONNECTICUT INC.’S
FIRST SET OF INTERROGATORIES
Comcast of Connecticut, Inc. (“Comcast”) hereby requests responses from BCTV; Bloomfield Access TV; Citizens Television; Inc.; Community Voice Channel; ETV 18/Access; E. H. Comm. TV.; Guilford Community TV; Madison Community TV; Madison Community Access Group; Newington Community TV; Inc.; North Haven Community TV; Nutmeg TV; Rocky Hill Comm. TV; Sheehan High School; Simsbury Comm. TV; Skye Cable XIII; Soundview; Southeastern CT TV; Thames Valley Comm.; TOTOKET TV; Town of EH Access; Valley Shore Community TV; Wallingford Public Access; Wethersfield Comm. TV; WHC-TV; Windsor Community YV to the following interrogatories in the above-captioned proceeding by February 18, 2022.

Financial Information
COMCAST-1 Provide financial statements for your organization, for the years 2016-2021 reflecting the following information:

• Income
• Salaries
• Assets
• Cash on hand
• Expenses

COMCAST-2 Provide your organization’s tax returns for the years 2016-2021.
COMCAST-3 Has your organization applied for a Public, Educational, and Governmental Programming and Education Technology Investment Account (PEGPETIA) grant at any time during the period 2015-2021? If so, provide the amount sought, and if appropriate, the amount granted.
COMCAST-4 Has your organization applied for any PEGPETIA funding in the current round of funding through Docket 21-10-13? If so, please include the amount of funding requested.
COMCAST-5 Did your organization seek any funding through any COVID-19 economic relief programs, including the Paycheck Protection Program? If so, provide the amount sought, and if applicable, the amount granted.
COMCAST-6 Describe any fundraising efforts undertaken by your organization during the period 2016-2021.
Programming
COMCAST-7 Provide the number of regular users of your access studio and the number of programs produced or originating from your access studio for the period 2016-2021, by year.
Statutory Requirements
COMCAST-8 Reference the criteria set forth Conn. Gen. Stat. §§16-331a(c) and 16-331a(k). If your organization is seeking an increase in per-subscriber funding beyond a percentage reflecting the consumer price index for calendar year 2021, explain how your organization’s request satisfies each of the statutory criteria, as set forth below:

(1) The recommendations of the advisory council and of the municipalities in the franchise area;
(2) a review of the organization’s performance in providing community access programming;
(3) the operating plan submitted by the organization for providing community access programming;
(4) the experience in community access programming of the organization;
(5) the organization’s proposed budget, including expenses for salaries, consultants, attorneys, and other professionals;
(6) the quality and quantity of the programming to be created, promoted or facilitated by the organization;
(7) a review of the organization’s procedures to ensure compliance with federal and state law, including the regulations of Connecticut state agencies,
(8) the level of public interest in community access operations in the franchise area,
(9) the level of community need for educational access programming,
(10) the level and breadth of participation in community access operations,
(11) the adequacy of existing facilities, equipment and training programs to meet the current and future needs of the franchise area; and
(12) any other factors determined to be relevant by the authority

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