Wakefield Community Access Television filming and recording the recent May 15 Wakefield Town Meeting (WCAT Courtesy Photo)
By MARK SARDELLA
WAKEFIELD —— As electronic media technology changes, the financial survival of public access television and local media operations like Wakefield Community Access Television (WCAT) face serious challenges. Last night, the Wakefield Town Council voiced its support for legislation that would update the funding model for local access TV operations to reflect the current media landscape.
A letter from the Town Council will be going to Wakefield’s representatives in the state legislature as well as legislative leaders in support of House Bill H-74 and Senate Bill S-34, “An Act to Modernize Funding for Community Media Programming.”
The Town Council last night authorized Town Administrator Stephen P. Maio to send the letter supporting the nearly identical House and Senate bills, which would provide local cable channels with a share of streaming video revenue.
As more and more cable customers cut the cord, cable company revenues have plummeted, and so has the share of those revenues that the cable companies are required to pay in the form of “franchise fees” to fund local public access operations like WCAT in Wakefield.
Streaming services have cut into cable viewing and local access operations are looking to bring the model that funds their operations up to date as well.
WCAT General Manager Ryan Boyd and WCAT board member Brian McCoubrey discussed the issue with the Town Council last night and encouraged them to send the letter.
McCoubrey explained that the bills currently before the House and Senate represent the third attempt to get a streaming revenue bill through the legislature. The previous two attempts failed to pass for various reasons, he said.
Similar to the way that cable franchise fees are assessed at about 5 percent of cable company revenues to pay for local public access TV operations, the House and Senate bills call for a percentage of streaming revenues to also go to local access stations. The streaming legislation proposes to allocate the fees received with 20 percent going to the General Fund and 40 percent each to the municipality and the local access station (both based on population).
McCoubrey offered a rough estimate that, if the current legislation passes, WCAT would receive an additional $100,000 a year. Boyd told the Town Council that that amount would roughly make up for revenue lost from dwindling cable franchise fees. But as the technology continues to change in coming years, he added, needed funding for local cable stations like WCAT may continue to fall short.
WCAT provided a sample letter for the Town Council to send to legislators based on a template provided by MassAccess, an advocacy group serving local access community media centers across Massachusetts.
The letter to the Joint Committee on Advanced Information Technology, the Internet and Cybersecurity urges favorable action on both the House and Senate bills.
“With Massachusetts cable subscriptions steadily declining, the essential revenue from franchise fees has also declined,” the letter states. “Bills H-74 and S-34 would update the law to mirror unrelenting technological advances, allowing Wakefield to keep pace and deliver local information and entertainment to our residents.”
The letter goes on to note that Wakefield Community Access Television (WCAT) has covered nearly 1200 municipal meetings since 2020.
“Town Council Meetings are held in WCAT’s studios and require three staff members and some volunteers. This is also true for their coverage of School Committee meetings. WCAT also films local high school sports (football, boys’ and girls’ basketball, and boys’ and girls’ volleyball). Additionally, WCAT routinely runs religious programing and films other important events such as Town Meeting, Veterans Day, Memorial Day, the Pride Flag-raising ceremony, and Juneteenth events to name just a few. WCAT provides training for high school student interns that covers camera operation, control room operations (switching, sound board, Zoom support for hybrid meetings, and lighting), and the opportunity to provide commentary for high school sports programs.
“Without these services Wakefield would need to absorb the cost of municipal production and access to technology for residents would likely cease entirely. If H-74 and/or S-34 were to become law, the funds collected would allow WCAT to continue operations well into the future as well as provide much needed funding for municipal communications projects.
“We also note that H-74 and S-34 will also benefit the Commonwealth’s General Fund as well as municipalities like Wakefield through the allocation of fees.
“An Act to Modernize Funding for Community Media Programming makes sense for Massachusetts municipalities. We ask that you pass the bill along with a favorable recommendation.”
Boyd and McCoubrey also urged the public to send letters to the legislature and promised to put information on WCAT’s web site (wcatwakefield.org) to guide residents in the writing of such letters of support for the legislation.
The Town Council voted 7-0 to instruct Maio to send the letter supporting the streaming revenue bills.