It was just before 2 p.m. on a recent afternoon and there, in a nondescript building in an industrial area of Brooklyn Park, Shannon Slatton was ready to go live.
Standing on a studio set at CCX Media, a community television station with an exclusive focus on nine cities in the northwestern suburbs of the Twin Cities, she used a screen in front of her to quickly fix a single hair that was out of place before launching into the top story of the day: A Robbinsdale man was charged after he allegedly tampered with the oxygen supply to patients at a hospital. The camera then moved over to reporter Jay Wilcox, who had results from a recent state Nordic ski meet, occasionally cutting to interviews with high school athletes.
It was the kind of hyperlocal take that is at the core of public access television. Funded by local governments through an annual fee from private cable companies as right of way for using public property for cable, they cover topics ranging from high school sports to school board and city council meetings. But after nearly four decades on the air, CCX and other community television stations across the country say that funding source is being threatened by a new interpretation of law by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
The 1984 Cable Communications Policy Act paved the way for local governments to collect up to 5% of gross revenue of cable services in their area — known as franchise fees — to dedicate toward public access programming.
But in August, the FCC said that, under its interpretation of the law, a cable company can place a market value on any in-kind contributions that it also contributes to a community, things such as free cable connections in schools, libraries or government buildings, or service discounts for seniors or low-income families. Now, those in-kind contributions can be counted against the total franchise fee they pay governments.
The move is part of broader effort from the FCC to get the same cable companies to expand broadband access in rural communities by cutting back on regulations.
“Every dollar paid in excessive fees is a dollar that by definition cannot and will not be invested in upgrading and expanding networks,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai when the change passed the FCC last year. The commission did not provide further comment for this story.
But opponents of the FCC’s interpretation argue that in some communities, the new rule could significantly reduce franchise fees, forcing cities to choose between public programming or things like snowplows or fixing potholes.
Terry Hartikka, station manager at Mesabi Community TV for the past two decades, said they cover more than a half-dozen Iron Range communities that wouldn’t otherwise get much attention. Even reporters from local newspapers rely on their broadcasts to do some of their coverage, he said.
“Seven city councils now, four schools’ school board meetings, concerts, graduations, town hall meetings,” he said. “A lot of the schools and commissions didn’t want us when I decided to start filming them. They said ‘We’re going to quit if you’re going to do that.’ But now they appreciate it because it’s a good way for them to get the word out.”
He thinks the communities have come to value the public-access programming so much that they’d look to cut other services if franchise fees were reduced. “I think they’d sharpen their pencil a little bit more on their budget,” he said.
Today there are more than 1,500 community television stations in the country operating more than 3,000 channels. Religious programing and high school sports are big draws, and public-access television has increasingly become a way for ethnic and racial minorities and immigrant groups to create content in their communities. The Rural Broadband Association estimates cable companies pay $3 billion a year in franchise fees to local governments.
Dozens of cities across the country have signed on to a lawsuit asking the federal appeals courts to undo the FCC order, and there’s a bill moving through Congress that would clarify that franchise fees must be monetary, not in-kind contributions.
The bill has the backing of U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., and Minnesota’s two Democratic U.S. senators, Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith.
“In a world where we have increasing media consolidation and declining sources of local news, these government and public education channels are increasingly important. Imagine you live in a community where there are no more local newspapers, how are you going to know what’s going on?” said Smith. “We should not be placing our thumbs on the scale for the cable companies.”
Mike Johnson, executive director of CCX Media, said the station has covered more than 14,000 public meetings since it was founded in 1982. Its local focus is by design: “We have stories to tell and nobody’s telling them,” Johnson said. “Community newspapers are dying in our communities, and this is our way for us to provide communications daily.”
The change comes at an already difficult time for public programming, as more people cut cable cords and get most of their content online or through streaming services. CCX Media has started putting most content online and pushing people to it through Facebook and other social media outreach sites.
But for now, the franchise fees are how they survive, and Johnson is worried more cuts are yet to come.
“That’s the double whammy here,” he said. “If they allow that to go, what’s the next thing they chip away at?”