For decades, Cheshire TV has offered local cable subscribers the chance to create and produce their own TV shows, educational or otherwise. It’s also been an outlet for airing municipal and school meetings live — and later repeated — so those who can’t attend, say, a Keene City Council, Monadnock school board or Gilsum selectmen’s meeting, can still pay attention to what the council is doing.
At this point, such offerings are pretty much taken for granted. But they could be very much in danger. That danger comes in terms of funding. The equipment and expertise to produce such programming costs money; even when the shows are self-produced by the “stars,” someone has to teach those amateurs how to do it, and help guide them to create something watchable.
Cheshire TV has an annual budget that comes from a 3.5 percent subscriber fee.
The first threat to Cheshire TV — and similar public, educational and governmental (or PEG) stations throughout the country — is a proposed move by the Federal Communications Commission to hand back to telecommunications giants some of the money they’ve been putting toward local access operations. Under the Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984, up to 5 percent of cable fees are to be set aside for such stations, on the presumption that in areas relying on cable, there exists a public benefit to setting aside space for valuable public programming the cable firms don’t control. It also serves to pay communities for access to their roads and byways, used to string the cable.
Last fall, the FCC unveiled a plan to let cable companies deduct from that payout the cost of so-called “in-kind” services communities may request outside of their franchise agreements. Proponents say the change would only affect communities that are trying to hold cable companies hostage to pay for extra services, but the language isn’t that limiting. It would, if implemented, allow the telecoms to offset all kinds of expenses, potentially reducing what they pass on for PEG station operations drastically.
Advocates of Cheshire TV and other PEG stations say that could drive them out of business entirely.
Also worth noting is that every community has the option of whether to set up PEG stations; under the 1984 law, cities and towns could charge cable firms a subscriber fee and pocket the money. Keene hasn’t done that. Here, the city has had sometimes-contentious negotiations with Cheshire TV over rates and other payments, but has always clearly valued the operation.
Faced with the FCC’s new plan, the city agreed to a three-year operating deal that guarantees Cheshire TV will get funds monthly regardless of what the FCC does. In the past, the city has been open to increases in the subscriber fees, and has fought with Spectrum’s predecessor, Time Warner Cable, to protect subscribers’ access to Cheshire TV’s offerings. The city has also provided the operation with a home in the library’s Heberton Hall — and during that building’s renovations, in the library’s basement. And it allowed Cheshire TV to double from one to two dedicated channels.
The benefits of Cheshire TV are multiple. Not only does it provide coverage of governmental meetings, as noted above, but it also offers an uncensored venue for those hoping to get out their views or just entertain people. Moreover, it provides instruction and experience in TV production. Some locals who began operating cameras for the access station have gone on to careers in the field.
Of course, some of those dynamics have become redundant with the growth of the Internet and, particularly, with online video production and streaming. Someone looking toward a future in video production can now get the tools and experience online, while perhaps building a wider audience than Cheshire TV would offer. Individual YouTube channels give would-be stars more exposure (though they are subject to potential censorship). Cheshire TV itself now makes its content available online, through its own website.
And therein lies the second, larger threat to Cheshire TV and its brethren: cord-cutting. In the past several years, many Americans, fed up with the high cost and monopolized content of cable TV, have opted to discontinue the service, relying instead on streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu for content. With a recent explosion of streaming services and devices that make it easier to find and use them, cord-cutting is picking up steam at an alarming rate.
Alarming to operators of PEG stations, anyway. Every cable subscriber lost is money those stations won’t see. And while Keene and other local communities have been very accommodating in the past, we’re not sure city officials will want to shift that burden onto taxpayers. So Cheshire TV will, at some point, likely have to figure out a new financial grounding.
Perhaps it will be through direct subscriptions to its content; perhaps by striking a deal to be included in a larger service. Perhaps something we can’t even envision yet in the fast-changing field of content technology.
As Cheshire TV’s executive director told The Sentinel: “That’s going to show how much of a value a community-access station is, when cable funding goes away.”