FALL RIVER, N.H. — As Concord TV nears the end of its second decade of providing the city with the most local of local content, it faces a possible financial crunch caused by the least local of sources: federal telecommunications regulations and national changes in people’s media habits.
“It’s not like we’re panicking. We’re going to keep providing the best content we can,” said Josh Hardy, a seven-year veteran of the community access station who this summer was named its new executive director as Doris Ballard steps aside following a decade at the helm.
Not panicking but not unaware. In fact, the entire landscape of community TV is aware of what might happen.
“We’re definitely worried. There’s definitely a reason to be worried,” said Keith Thibault, director of Fall River, Mass., Community Media and a board member of Alliance for Community Media, a national organization of community-access stations.
The bulk of money to run non-profit community-access channels like Concord TV comes from fees paid by the cable TV company as part of its contract with the local government. The fees were created under laws passed in 1984 by Congress that largely shaped the cable TV industry in this country.
In Concord, Hardy said, the city council gives one-third of this franchise fee to the station for operations, while the rest goes into the general fund. The actual dollar amount each year depends on how many city residents subscribe to Comcast cable TV. The station also gets $525,000 over the course of the 10-year contract for capital improvements, such as new servers or cameras, Hardy said.
In fiscal year 2018, two-thirds of the station’s revenue came from franchise fees: That’s $296,000 out of a total of $462,000. That ratio has been roughly stable in recent years.
The financial peril for Concord TV and others of its kind is twofold. The first peril is “cord-cutting,” the term for an increasing pattern in which people stop subscribing to cable television and instead look at videos or stream programs over the internet.
Concord’s franchise fee is dependent upon subscribers to Comcast’s TV service. Concord TV gets no money from cord-cutting even if the cord-cutting customer still gets internet through Comcast, as is often the case.
“We are seeing, across the country, that the number of cable subscribers has dwindled as more and more people are cutting the cord,” said Thibault.
A proposed bill in Massachusetts would change the situation in that state, charging a 5% fee to digital streaming providers to make up for lost cable TV fees, but nothing of the sort is in the works for New Hampshire.
The second peril is a recent FCC ruling that would allow Comcast to reduce monetary payments to the local franchise fee by placing a value on “in-kind services” that it provides, such as cable connections to local government buildings and subtracting that from the fee payment. The Alliance for Community Media thinks this is illegal so there may be legislative pushback, and either way it’s unclear how much reduction in fees this would create in Concord.
But it’s definitely a concern.
Concord TV has operated out of Concord High School offices since it got the community-access franchise in 1998, broadcasting everything from streaming video of city council meetings to video of school plays to recordings of Science Cafe to the popular “Dogs of Concord” program.
With four full-time and several part-time staff, as well as a host of volunteers, it also trained scores of students and adults in video techniques and technology over the years, a role that should increase now that the Concord Regional Technical Center is adding film to its theater program. Concord TV’s location helps explain why Concord High School has “the most sophisticated three-camera morning announcements you’ve ever seen,” said Hardy.
In recent years Concord TV has embraced the online world, not just broadcasting over three Comcast channels but live-streaming events online, creating YouTube and Facebook channels, and discarding equipment like DVD and video players that were once cutting-edge.
“Depreciation happens very quickly in this industry,” is how Mike O’Meara, a former board member and volunteer who has been the station’s IT director since 2017, puts it.
One of the frustrating parts of community access TV is lack of data about viewership through cable boxes, which means nobody can say exactly how many people have seen all this work. “There’s no Nielsen ratings for hyper-local content,” notes Hardy.
But Concord TV’s programs definitely get watched. One measure is what happens when there’s a hiccup in the technology.
“When streaming goes out, we hear about it. We get calls, emails. The city clerk’s office gets calls and emails,” said O’Meara.
With newspapers and TV stations struggling to maintain local reporting, the role of community access channels is only getting more important.
“If it’s eight people, or 30, or 50 — it’s still that local aspect that’s important,” said Hardy. “It serves a role in the community.”
Hardy said the station’s staff and board of directors are always looking for new sources of revenue. Last year, the station got $68,000 in grants and $16,000 from events. Their legal status means they don’t accept advertising like commercial channels, but Hardy said they’re looking into corporate underwriting of programs, similar to what is done by public radio and public TV.
“We’re going to keep making these programs, these services. I think it’s important; we all do,” said Hardy.
Information from: Concord Monitor, http://www.concordmonitor.com