By Debra Parkhurst
Bedford Selectmen met with members of Bedford Community Access Television (Bedford TV) at their meeting on Monday, October 3, to further discuss the future of funding for community. Bedford TV board member Bob Dutton and Executive Director Greg Dolan outlined the issues facing community television and sought guidelines from the Selectmen as they face funding shortfalls.
Currently, funding for cable TV is derived from what is known as PEG access fees, which the Town and the Cable providers agree to as part of their franchise contract. PEG stands for Public, Educational, and Governmental access. These fees provide the funds for the equipment, training, and time, which allows the public to produce content or shows that can be delivered to a large audience. PEG Access fees appear on your monthly cable bill. The current Verizon contract ends in 2019, while the Comcast contract ends in 2024. The Town contract with Bedford TV ends June 30, 2017.
The Department of Revenue (DOR) had changed their policy on the accounts, and the fees will now have to go into either an Enterprise Fund Account or a Special Revenue Account, rather than the current use of a revolving account. Going forward, the Town prefers to use the Special Revenue Account.
Dutton and Dolan explained that Bedford TV has two major issues. Expenses (including $35,000 for facilities) exceed revenue, which comes from the 3.5 % surcharge to the cable providers as part of their franchise contract. Capital costs are a separate account.Cable accounts could be exhaustedby 2020. Bedford TV added that revenue from Verizon and Comcast are either flat or in decline. The operational costs of Bedford TV increases 2.5 to 3.5% a year, and cannot adequately address the fact that Bedford TV cannot compete with other communities in terms of benefits for its employees. Budgetsare appropriated at Annual Town Meetings.
The members also noted the changing environment. While most people may still gain their local public information via their cable connection, many are using their phones or other devices to access content via YouTube, Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. This is a growing trend, and consequently, signing up for cable is flat or losing ground. Yet, there remains a market for producing the content, using the equipment and educational services provided by local access.
Bedford TV grapples with what their future target audience will look like, what content should be provided, and on what media should it be delivered. The fundamental funding gap remains.
For the development of the RFP, Bedford TV asked the Selectmen to consider the target audience, media trends,and funding variations. They also ask the Selectmen to address Bedford TV budget shortfalls by making allowances for the studio costs and allowing employees to “piggyback” on town benefit options, as well as raising the 3.5 % surcharge to 5%.
Jim Shea, chair of the Cable Television Committee outlined the timing of the RFP prior to the end of the contract in June. He noted a current and future deficit of $14,000, but advised that it should not be addressed by using funds from capital, as that reserve should be used for town owned equipment replacement. He said that Bedford has 4,800 subscribers at a cost of $47.00 per subscriber per year, while Lexington has 10,208 subscribers at a cost of $38.00 per subscriber. He also noted that Comcast tacks on an additional $1.42 per month for capital expenses.
Selectman Fleischman noted that Bedford is not alone in this dilemma. Many people do not subscribe to cable, and get their content otherwise. Thus, the number of subscribers does not match the people benefiting from the services provided. She also noted the importance of this service, particularly as it provides “transparency to local government.” She sees no “state of the art” solution.
Selectman Moonan, liaison to the Cable Television Committee, agreed that transparency is provided by video coverage. He recognized the fixed amount of funding,,and the need to be competitive to keep employees. These are elements the Selectmen need to address. Less money may be coming in from the cable providers, yet the Town is using some of that to pay costs for space at the Old Town Hall. Sooner or later, the taxpayers will have to be part of the solution, by either lowering that cost or otherwise helping with these expenses. The Selectmen, with the assistance of the Cable Committee must address all these issues.