• Big Cable threatens public access
    August 26,2014

    I am a new member of the board of Central Vermont Television, or CVTV. This is the public access cable station serving Washington County. As a board member I have recently learned about the process by which community cable stations receive funding. I was dismayed to discover CVTV is in the position of continually justifying its existence in front of cable behemoths like Charter Communications that view public access as a financial burden.

    CVTV is a legally mandated service and an obvious public good; unfortunately the state government has abdicated its responsibility to protect this public resource. Charter Communications is given free rein to use its vast resources to bully CVTV into receiving less and less funding. Why isn’t the state government advocating on behalf of public access stations?

    Cable companies are understandably hostile to the notion that they should dedicate any resources to anything that diminishes profit. Why should they air school board meetings or select board meetings or other local programming if it doesn’t bring in revenue? This is a natural and logical point of view for a private enterprise, and this is exactly why the public good must be zealously guarded by the state of Vermont.

    The federal law that is the cornerstone of all cable regulations, the Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984, says one of its purposes is to “assure that cable systems are responsive to the needs and interests of the local community.”

    The author of this legislation was the late Sen. Barry Goldwater. Even this champion of the free market saw a government mandate as vital to safeguarding local programming. These private companies use public rights of way to deliver their specialized service. Part of their civic pact with the government is to encourage the voice of the local community.

    Thankfully Vermont places a premium on community and a local voice. In the process of allocating financial resources, an agreement is forged between the affiliate station and the cable provider. That contract is shaped by the state. The current system pits meagerly funded local stations against cable industry giants. The state of Vermont’s Public Service Board adjudicates presentations made by both sides, which in turn shape the specifics in the contract. The central question I would like to pose is this: Why are the interests of large corporations weighed equally against those of ordinary Vermonters? Why doesn’t the state feel obligated to represent public access channels against private shareholders?

    A cable industry representative from Charter Communications visited our board meeting to discuss our renewed contract. His cavalier attitude toward the public good was predictable. He scoffed at the idea that public access should share in Internet revenues. A detailed explanation of this seemingly small matter would be beyond the scope of this letter, but the bottom line is — without these funds the future existence of public access is in question. This would be of no concern to the Charter executive, who made statements such as “the bottom line is you guys just aren’t that popular.” This translates to “not worth funding.”

    The fact that the Barre Town Select Board meeting cannot compete with the viewership of “Breaking Bad” is precisely why this legislation exists. There is a generally perceived public good that rises above commercial concerns.

    The same executive also failed to disclose Charter’s changes in service that dramatically affect CVTV’s operations. A short time after the meeting the board received notification that our current channels 7 and 23 would be moved to 192 and 194. He offered no financial help in notifying the public, much less redesigning our logos. We are fighting this action, along with many other subversions, but the real problem is the system in which the cable giants are not compelled to fully fund their mandated responsibilities. Incidentally, CVTV is slated to have Charter’s role be replaced by Comcast. Given Comcast’s track record in managing customers, one can only imagine the responsiveness of its government relations executives.

    This stinginess toward properly funding civic obligations cannot be attributed to lack of resources, since the CEO of Comcast alone made $31 million last year. CVTV’s budget is $154,000.

    Mr. Rutledge, the CEO of Charter, and Mr. Roberts, the CEO of Comcast, are merely doing their jobs in maximizing shareholder value. Unfortunately, regulators have been asleep at the switch in permitting this windfall to occur on the backs of customers and citizens. It is time for the state of Vermont to play its role in safeguarding the public trust. The state should not merely referee an unfair battle between a heavyweight and a featherweight. Vermont needs to secure the maximum amount of funding from these titans by structuring the contracts with the public good as the paramount value.

    Please write Gov. Shumlin and your local representatives and senators. Ask them to craft legislation that maximizes the amount of funding to public access stations. This must include Internet revenues. Tell them you have serious concerns that the current system favors the large cable providers over ordinary Vermonters. Also contact the Public Service Board and express the importance of public access television.

    Vermont needs to act as a zealous advocate of the public good on behalf of public access stations. After all, it’s the Public Service Board, and not “the Vermont Corporate Arbitration Panel.” The state of Vermont has a duty to protect it citizens from Big Cable.

    Bram Towbin, of Plainfield, is a board member at Central Vermont Television.

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