REGION — A bill has been filed within the legislature to modernize cable access funding for local media stations such as WestfordCAT which could solve a number of budget challenges local media has faced.
A similar bill was filed last session which did not come to a vote.
How are we funded?
Right now, WestfordCAT has a number of revenue streams, including donations and fundraisers. But our primary stream comes from cable franchise fees.
These fees, typically between one and five percent, are paid by subscribers to their cable providers, which is later passed off to their town. Some stations receive 100% of funds from franchise fees while some receive a fraction of that funding.
In WestfordCAT’s case, we have negotiated a five percent rate for our franchise fees, which are paid by Verizon Fios and Comcast to the Town of Westford to WestfordCAT.
This revenue was authorized in the Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984 — nearly four decades ago.
Cutting the cord — what it means for us
This funding acts as our primary source of revenue. However, what happens as people “cut the cord?”
Cutting the cord could mean saving money on bills and having access to on-demand content from streaming services. However, it could also lead to less community-oriented content produced by residents in our town.
In 2022 alone, WestfordCAT provided:
- 148 live and taped government meetings.
- Access to high school sporting events, graduation ceremonies, cultural ceremonies and honors society events among others.
- Paid and unpaid internships for high school and college students.
- Local news coverage of Westford.
- Exposure to topics of interest in the community.
- And much more.
Over time and especially through the pandemic, our revenue has declined approximately five percent year over year. As cable prices have risen, it has helped stabilize our budget. But we have continued to seek alternative sources of funding.
What is in the streaming bill?
Both bills – H. 74 and S. 34 – An Act to Modernize Funding for Community Media Programming would update the law to allow us to continue to deliver educational services, programming and government meeting coverage to our residents.
The bill, which is now with the Joint Committee on Advanced Information Technology the Internet and Cybersecurity since Feb. 16, would require streaming services to pay five percent of their annual gross revenues to a new Streaming Entertainment Fund, which would credit communities based on their population.
The bill is co-sponsored by Rep. James Arciero and Sen. John Cronin, who both represent Westford.
Leveling the playing field
This bill would be transformative, allowing for a more stable revenue source for cable access stations like WestfordCAT.
Some, like Littleton Community Television Executive Director Mark Crory, believe it would “level the playing field” for cable access.
“We are looking forward to leveling the playing field for some of these third-party entertainment providers. I believe they should have to pay their share for the use of the poles in town,” he told WestfordCAT.
Littleton Community Television, a town department, benefits from reduced operating costs. The station, Crory notes, does not have to pay rent or utilities but could have trouble sustaining its operation in the future.
“We benefited from being a town department. Other than the town paying for the facilities, we pay for everything else. Right now we’re able to sustain that. We project in five years we would probably need additional revenue sources.”
Some stations, like Tyngsborough Media, have been unable to make new investments in their equipment.
“We’re stretching, we’re not buying new cameras. We’re just trying to keep steady,” Director of Media Programming Rony Camille said.
He added, “Right now, we are feeling the pressure of the dwindling funding from cable revenues. People are cutting the cord. We have to be creative with operations and funding. We’re trying to get those additional revenues in the department.”
Both Crory and Camille have noted that both stations have seen a downward trend in their cable subscribers. Even Chelmsford Telemedia has noticed a dip in its subscribers.
“The last two years our revenue has been fairly steady but the subscriber numbers are dropping. The assumption we all make is that the cable bills are higher and subscriptions are lower,” Executive Director Pete Pedulla said.
WestfordCAT is not immune to these trends. Over the last five years, we have seen a decline in our subscriber base and our franchise fee. For the time being, our revenues from cable franchise fees have remained stable. However, the future is uncertain for cable access.
Supporting local journalism
WestfordCAT provides the recorded coverage of government meetings, school events and town ceremonies among others. However, we’re unique. We have a news department.
Since our revenue derives from our franchise fees and donations, our obligation is to you, our readers. But journalism isn’t free and it’s on the decline. A number of publications —both nonprofit and for-profit — have laid off staff to cut costs and streamline operations amid declining revenue.
So —- what has been cut in 2023?
- On June 12, The Athletic, owned by the New York Times since 2022, announced that 20 positions, about 4% of its workforce, would be cut. An additional 20 reporters would be reassigned to new beats.
- On June 7, The Los Angeles Times announced it would cut 74 positions in its newsroom.
- On May 19 Fox News dissolved its investigative unit.
- On April 27, Vice Media announced it would lay off 100 of its roughly 1,500 employees.
- On April 20, Buzzfeed CEO Jonah Peretti told Buzzfeed News staff that the publication would shut down.
- On March 21, New England Public Media laid off 17 of its employees, which accounts for 20% of its staff.
- On March 19, Seacoast Media Group and Gannett announced 34 layoffs and closed a printing press in Portsmouth, NH.
- On Feb. 23, NPR CEO John Lansing announced 10% of the current workforce would be laid off.
- On Jan. 21, Vox Media laid off 133 people, about 7% of its staff.
- On March 16, 2022, Gannett announced that the Eagle-Independent, which covered Westford, Littleton and Chelmsford would cease print publication on May 6, 2022. The publication occasionally covers stories in Westford, Chelmsford and Littleton as of June 15 but has no reporter assigned to specifically cover the three towns.
This list of cuts only accounts for a fraction of layoffs in the industry as a whole. As a result, a number of communities have become “news deserts,” having no local reporters to provide context and clarity to issues and events in town.
Forbes maintains a running list of media layoffs. For more information, check out their coverage.
We are incredibly grateful to our members, donors, sponsors, supporters, readers and our town officials for making the work we do possible. We couldn’t do it without you.