North suburban officials contesting FCC rules change

North suburban officials contesting FCC rules change

By Anne Holzman

Officials in Lauderdale, Falcon Heights and the seven other cities served by local government cable access — through the North Suburban Cable Commission [NSCC] — have been invited to weigh in about proposed changes to the cable fees supporting those services.

NSCC operates the nonprofit CTV television station, which records, broadcasts, and archives government meetings and produces videos about local events, including school sports and performances. Content can be viewed on the CTV cable channel or online. 

Like similar nonprofits around the country, CTV relies on fees added to customers’ cable bills for a large proportion of its budget. Cities receive fee payments and use them to pay for community TV. The fees appear on cable customers’ bills as “franchise fees” and “PEG (public education and government).” 

The Federal Communications Commission [FCC] is considering changes that could “radically reduce the level of monetary support” for local-access government services, according to CTV Executive Director Dana Healy.

In early March Healy said that while the details of the proposed changes were not yet settled, likely changes would include allowing cable companies making donations of equipment to count in-kind value against their monetary obligations to cities.

Joy Sims, of the NCTA Internet and Television Association, said of the proposed changes, “cable operators have worked for decades with local communities to make public access programming widely available — first to our subscribers and now even more broadly over streaming video. We pay more than $3 billion a year in fees that local governments can use to fund PEG and other priorities, and we separately pay for construction of studios and other facilities. We will continue to provide that support going forward.”

Healy contended the proposed rule change “is designed to bolster the cable companies and knock down the municipalities.” She urged citizens to enter comments at the Petition2Congress website. She said she has been working with staff at Rep. Betty McCollum’s office to defend the existing franchise fees.

The city of Lauderdale budgets about $20,000 annually in cable fees, City Manager Heather Butkowski said. Of that amount, about $5,000 is the city’s contribution to CTV operations.

“Additional dollars are used to pay CTV for services they provide the city such as web streaming of council meetings,” Butkowski said. “Another bit of funding is used to cover a small portion of the salary of the employee that runs our cable equipment at meetings, etc. The rest is saved for equipment replacement as needed.”

In any given week, dozens of people tune in to CTV to watch city council meetings or view other community events. “There’s a lot of people that this is their primary source of being tuned into their public meeting,” Healy said. 

Sue Majerus, who represents Falcon Heights on the North Suburban Communications Commission, said CTV reaches people who can’t drive to a meeting, or who want to see their grandchildren in the school play but can’t get there. “There’s just no other media that provides that,” she said.

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