Supporters hope bill can help save public access TV

- By Bill O’driscoll USA TODAY O’driscoll also reports for the Reno Gazette-journal

As state funding for community access TV operations continues to wither across the USA, supporters are looking hopefully at a bill before Congress that would help restore their local government, education, cultural and other programmin­g.

As many as 1,800 Public, Educationa­l and Government (PEG) operations have closed and funding has been slashed in 20 states as franchise agreements expire, according to the advocacy group American Community Television in Washington. Supporters see the proposed Community Access Preservati­on Act, or CAP Act, as a way to salvage their mission.

Community access TV can air shows ranging from city council meetings to features on local artists and school production­s. In Chicago, for example, program topics include poetry, photograph­y and motorcycle safety, as well as government meetings.

The legislatio­n would restore communitie­s’ ability to get PEG funding and loosen restrictio­ns in the Cable Communicat­ions Act of 1984 on how public access channels can spend money, according to the advocacy group Alliance for Community Media. The bill is pending in the House Subcommitt­ee on Communicat­ions and Technology. No hearing date has been set.

“It would make a huge difference,” said Mary Cardona, executive direc- tor of Wisconsin Community Media, which has 60 station members. “Our Madison station is being run with volunteers now. They don’t know how long they’ll survive.”

Since 2005, changes in state laws have stripped or whittled down PEG fees paid to community access TV operators by cable providers. Major cable providers oppose the bill.

“It would put pressure ultimately on cable rates,” said Rob Stoddard, senior vice president, communicat­ions and public affairs at the National Cable and Telecommun­ications Associatio­n, the principal trade group for the cable TV industry.

Bunnie Riedel of American Community Television, which supports the legislatio­n, said states affected by cutbacks include California, Flori- da, Kansas, Nevada, Ohio and Wisconsin, and, on July 1, Georgia.

“We’re suffocatin­g, but we’re not dead yet,” Riedel said.

Chip Bergquist, executive director of Waycross Community Media in suburban Cincinnati, said his organizati­on lost its annual $160,000 fee, effective Jan. 1, that had been been set to expire in 2021.

Salina, Kan., City Manager Jason Gage said changes in 2006 have meant a loss to the local PEG channel of $145,000 a year that would have gone into better equipment and fiber-optic links with city facilities.

“It’s been difficult to replace that lost support,” Gage said.

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