For several weeks last year, residents of River Falls, Wis., who tuned in to their two community-access TV channels saw an announcement that the channels would go dark come mid-December.
River Falls’ once robust community media center had been dwindling for years, due in part to a 2011 state law that stripped cities of the ability to collect subscriber fees for public programming. Still, local governments have largely refrained from scrapping their public-access channels.
That may soon change.
Facing a proposed Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ruling that would slash their funding, cities, counties, school districts and nonprofits that manage community media centers are fearing the loss of their cable TV channels.
“We’ve been challenged through the years, but I can’t really think of a more existential threat to community media than this rule-making,” said Mary Cardona, executive director of the nonprofit Wisconsin Community Media, which promotes publicly based media production.
If the FCC adopts the proposed rule, the money that cities receive from cable companies to use the right of way will be capped at 5 percent of the cable operator’s revenue. That could mean a 30 percent cut in public revenue, according to the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors.
What’s worse, community media advocates say, is that the value of any channels set aside for public, education and government programming would count against that cap. For cities and towns that direct the fees to the general fund, that would require making a choice between funding the channels or municipal services.
“This would be devastating for communities,” said Mike Wassenaar, president of the Minneapolis-based Alliance for Community Media. “It’s going to hit small towns the hardest. … It will accelerate the process of hollowing out local media in America.”
Though the FCC has set no timetable for when the rule would take effect, Wassenaar said his organization has been advising local media centers to lobby lawmakers as well as look for other revenue sources. For municipalities who operate these centers on their own, options could come down to raising taxes or cutting services, Wassenaar said.
“We are also advising folks to consider mergers, consolidations and cost-saving measures,” he said. “We may see some places end up being forced into regionalization of operations.”
Minnesota already has examples of that. A dozen cable commissions in the metro area manage community access channels and negotiate franchise agreements on behalf of their member cities. The model works well, said Mark Martinez, administrator at the South Washington County Telecommunications Commission (SWCTC), which serves Woodbury, Cottage Grove and other nearby cities.
More than a decade ago, the SWCTC opted to drop public-access programming, choosing to focus instead on government and municipal programming. That’s not uncommon for media centers looking for places to cut, especially in the era of YouTube when people don’t necessarily need a studio to produce a show, Martinez said.
Since the 2011 state law, Wisconsin has become a state of “media centers on a shoestring,” Cardona said. Further cuts could jeopardize government transparency, she added.
While televised city meetings often are streamed online, Cardona said that cutting a cable channel severs an avenue for residents to watch City Hall make decisions.
“We think that having a cable channel is a valuable commodity,” she said. “A lot of people don’t want to watch a city council meeting on a laptop, like people under 35 might.”
To reach a more diverse audience, community media centers are increasingly posting content online and offering programming through streaming services like Roku, Apple TV and Amazon Fire.
But even as more Americans ditch cable in favor of streaming services, Wassenaar said, cable remains a primary way to deliver information in many areas, particularly to places with older residents.
“We are advising folks to use every platform they can to reach everybody they can,” he said. “That’s the way media works in America — people don’t just watch one thing, and they don’t just use one platform.”