Dealing with FCC Fallout

This column was originally published in The Davis Enterprise on Sept. 6, 2019

By Autumn Labbé-Renault

Since the Federal Communications Commission voted to tighten rules governing the franchise fees cable companies pay to cities, people are asking me how will it affect Davis, and the public, education, and government channels here — the first two of these operated by Davis Media Access, the third by the city.

I’ve been writing about this issue for over a year, and I wish I had a definitive answer to that. While the rulemaking was approved Aug. 1, there’s a comment and answer period before the rules go into effect, and legal action will certainly follow. So, we wait. But I will say in all my years working in non-profits, I’ve never experienced something this potentially devastating, and it’s got all of us at DMA working to envision a potentially very different future.

At the heart of the matter is a set of regulations from the Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984 that limited what cities can bill cable companies for local access to the rights of way to 5 percent of gross revenues on cable bills. Municipalities have historically used that money to support their local stations. Let me be clear: we’re talking about cities taking a collective multi-billion dollar hit, and an entire nonprofit sector potentially being put out of business.

The effects of the FCC’s decision will go beyond local stations. The new rules prioritize industry interests over the public interest, and will permit cable providers to deduct in-kind services and equipment from the established cap, potentially dramatically reducing their monetary support for PEG outlets. In-kind items include fiber connectivity to police departments, fire stations and libraries, free cable subscriptions for schools, discounts for the elderly and program guide listings, among others.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai says the “savings” will allow profits to trickle down and invest in broadband infrastructure (Strangely enough, the White House’s report on R&D, released earlier this week, contains zero references to 5G, the infrastructure of the future — and in a time marked by an epic loss of localism and the rise of news deserts, this is a national tragedy So, what’s a humble nonprofit community media leader to do? I’ll start by saying this is hardly the only threat confronting our field. We’ve long been out-gunned by a cable lobby that seeks to do an end-run around telecom law. We’re dealing with diminished revenues, anyway, due to cord cutting. And yet, in the face of this, we continue to forge the partnerships, train the volunteers, cover the elections, and air the meetings that provide a wholly unique lens on life in our community. And so, we work on finding new ways to do what we do.

I’m proud to announce that starting this month, DMA is working with Woodland Community College as a production partner on a CTE Pathways Grant the college received to create distance-learning modules. The grant will see three members of our staff out in Woodland on a regular basis, and in that vein, we’re bringing longtime KDRT volunteer Diane Crumley on board as a KDRT’s interim operations manager. A part-time position, Diane will manage the station’s fall fundraiser and its associated community events, and we feel fortunate to have someone with Diane’s talents on board.

A recent meeting with a fellow executive director reminded me what challenging times the nonprofit sector as a whole faces these days. I’ll continue to write about the impacts of the FCC’s decision as things unfold. #media #telecom #PEG #communitymedia #FCC #localism

Davis Media Access is the only nonprofit community media center in Yolo County. KDRT 95.7 FM is a project of DMA. Autumn Labbé-Renault has served as its executive director since 2007, where she writes and blogs about a wide variety of media issues.