Committee wrestles with funding sources for public access TV

Lauren-Glenn Davitian hosts a “Free Speech Today” program on Channel 17 in 2016.Amid regulatory changes and a market shifting away from cable television, a committee is discussing how to continue funding Vermont’s public access channels.In a meeting at the Statehouse Thursday, the PEG (public, educational, and government) Access Study Committee homed in on how public TV is currently funded, and how that funding model could change in coming years to keep the service financially viable.The state has 25 public access organizations that manage 81 channels of commercial-free television, showing things like city council and selectboard meetings in cities and towns across Vermont. That comes at a cost of about $8 million a year — but as it stands, 92% of that cost is funded by cable fees, since federal law mandates that cable companies must provide communities with these channels.But a new proposal from the Federal Communications Commission suggests that cable companies could place a monetary value on those public services, and deduct the cost from the franchise fees they pay to cities — which could mean a significant drop in revenue for the organizations.That comes alongside a push to get more public access television online, since far fewer Vermonters are watching cable than they once did. However, the logistics of how the state can make money from online streaming is not as clear as the logistics for making money from cable company fees.But the combination of the shift toward the internet and new FCC proposal means revenues will continue to decline — until Vermont finds a new way for public access television to stay financially viable.“It’s a steady threat,” said Lauren-Glenn Davitian, executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy in Burlington. “We have to be positioned as a state to respond if any corners get turned.”VTDigger’s business coverage is underwritten by: She pointed to a few cities and states that have devised funding sources that she said Vermont may want to look into. For example, in Chicago an “amusement tax” that was originally intended for things like Ferris wheels and mini golf was recently amended to include everything from video games to Netflix, and other online services.In Minnesota, a “heritage tax” increases the sales tax to fund organizations that preserve the state’s history and heritage. She also pointed to several states and municipalities with telecommunications taxes that could act as models for Vermont, and several others with “connection charges” that tax the wires rather than the services themselves.Davitian also pointed out several other policy measures that she said are worth noting — the first being the idea of a “news desert,” which is gaining traction in Massachusetts. She said much like the idea of food deserts, it would stress getting information to people in places severely lacking. Another idea Davitian mentioned was community information districts, which would have taxing authority to support local media in those areas.Committee members agreed to research the options on the table on their own time and could come back for the next meeting — the fourth of six total — with thoughts on what might be the best option moving forward.Davitian said the solution likely isn’t going to be an $8 million funding source, but rather a plan on how to combine state funds, municipal funds, underwriting, philanthropic funds, fees for service, and membership to find a workable solution.“The pie chart is going to look different than it does today,” she said.Rep. Michael Yantachka, D-Charlotte, said ultimately they would have to come to some consensus so they can draft legislation.“But we can’t do nothing,” said Clay Purvis, the director of telecommunications for the state Department of Public Service. “That’s against the law. 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