WASHINGTON — Maryland Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) sent a letter to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), urging them to stop proposed regulations that could hurt local public broadcasting channels.
On June 12, Van Hollen sent a letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai expressing his concern over the regulations.
According to Van Hollen’s office, the FCC came up with a proposed rule that would let broadband companies, like Comcast and Cox Communications, decide how many public channels are worth keeping on their programming. The channels they do not want to keep can be subtracted in that amount from their contracts with cities.
“This could cause these communities to make harsh funding choices and pit municipal needs against each other, all so that large broadband companies can save money,” Van Hollen’s office wrote.
Public, educational and governmental channels – often called PEG channels – frequently air shows that are produced locally and focus on their immediate communities. PEG channels often air community meetings, cover local government or allow educational institutions to create instructive programming.
For instance, in Montgomery County, the area is served by County Cable Montgomery (CCM). It airs government news, public affairs programming and live council sessions, among other local news, according to CCM.
CCM writes that their mission is to increase residents’ access to county initiatives and amenities by providing thorough, unbiased coverage of the county.
“The mission of the channel is to expand and enhance residents’ access to county programs and services by bringing comprehensive information on those services, programs and resources to residents via cable television and other media,” CCM writes.
Other local PEG channels in the area are Charm TV, PAC 14 and University of Maryland TV.
According to Van Hollen’s office, the United States has an estimated 3,000 PEG channels, which provide a local perspective to communities.
“PEG channels provide essential local programming not provided by other media and reflect the special interests and character of their specific communities. The entire state of Maryland is served by a limited number of broadcast station(s),” Van Hollen wrote in his letter. “Local community events in the other 12,000 square miles of Maryland are often overlooked by commercial and public broadcasters because larger media entities have little time or incentive to cover them. Our local PEG channels are also invaluable and essential.”
In his letter to Pai, Van Hollen outlined the guidelines that currently regulate PEG channels. He explained that under The Cable Act, local franchising authorities can include in their agreements with cable companies requirements with cable companies to meet specific community needs. These include creating space for PEG channels within their broadcast service.
Van Hollen said that federal law provides its own regulations in addition to The Cable Act. They specify that state and local governments cannot collect fees from the local stations that exceed more than five percent gross revenue.
“The FCC’s proposal would permit cable companies to assign value to PEG channels and other franchise obligations, deem them in-kind contributions and subtract that amount and the value they place on any other in-kind contribution from the franchise fee the cable company pays to local franchising authorities,” Van Hollen wrote in his letter. “These in-kind contributions could include the backhaul of signals, free or reduced cable connections to town halls, interactive program guides, or even the channel capacity allotted to PEGs.”
Van Hollen said that this is the second letter he and his colleagues have sent to the FCC on this matter.
He notes that Pai’s response to his first letter last year demonstrates an attempt by the FCC to ignore legislative history and to avoid dealing with the demands of Congress.
Montgomery County responded to Van Hollen’s efforts by urging the FCC to avoid these new regulations.
“We are grateful and appreciative of Senator Van Hollen for taking on the chairman of the FCC to prevent a proposal that would allow cable companies to determine the fair market value of franchise obligations such as public, educational, or governmental (PEG) channels and then deduct that amount from the franchise fee,” the county said in a statement. “The FCC’s proposal would be detrimental to the health of PEG channels in Maryland and throughout our country. We thank Senator Van Hollen for his leadership in protecting local governments, and the people we serve, from federal overreach.”
In his letter, Van Hollen also suggested that the FCC perform a cost-benefit analysis to measure the impact of these new rules on local communities first. This would allow the commission to view the benefit to cable companies and their shareholders before passing regulations, Van Hollen said.