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MassAccess Fighting for Public Access TV in Cord-Cutting World

Proposed bill in Massachusetts legislature requests PEG access to HD tier, EPG.

NEWTON, MASS.—Pay-TV providers have been looking for ways to fight the growing trend of cord-cutting and its own decreasing number of subscribers in recent days. However, pay-TV stations may not be the ones in the greatest or most immediate danger from cord-cutting’s continued growth; rather, community media stations are struggling with it just the same and in many cases don’t have the same resources to compete.

MassAccess, a non-profit, state-wide organization in Massachusetts that supports community media centers, is seeing the current market for local access programming fading as baby boomers grow older and millennials and their penchant for streaming continue to take over. Even with nearly every town in Massachusetts operating its own media center with hyper-localized content, community stations are “strongly advocating for our relevancy,” Melinda Garfield, the recently elected MassAccess president, told GV.

“There are tons of cord-cutters out there right now and I just assume as the boomers start to fade so does cable television in general,” Garfield said. “And because we are solely funded by cable on your bill—we don’t get any revenue from internet or telephone, we are just solely cable—as we see those customers decrease, so will our funding.”

Garfield and MassAccess’ mission at this point is survival. One area that they are looking into is alternative funding, but a key piece of action the organization is pursuing is a piece of legislation that currently sits in the Massachusetts State Legislature.

The Act to Support Community Access TV was introduced to the Massachusetts House by Rep. Ruth Balser of Newton—MassAccess provided assistance in crafting the bill—first in 2016, but was not enacted. The bill was reintroduced this year. The bill would require cable companies to give community TV stations access to the HD tier, as well as the electronic programming guide.

Melinda Garfield

Garfield explains that the passing of the bill would allow local stations to “get back to being where everybody else is while they’re watching TV.” Being part of the electronic programming guide would also enable viewers to DVR local TV programming for the first time, another example of leveling the playing field.

After failing to move forward in the first attempt, MassAccess is putting more resources behind the support of the bill. O’Neill and Associates, a Boston-based lobbying firm, has been enlisted to support the bill and there is a grass roots social media campaign. MassAccess has gone to Beacon Hill to testify in support of the bill and met with local legislators to rally their support. To date, Garfield says there are 71 co-signers of the bill. One of the key selling points to legislators, per Garfield, is that local TV stations have been a strong platform for legislators to use for reelection and connection with constituents; Garfield reports that many state legislators even have their own shows on public access TV.

Currently, the bill has made it through its first hurdle. It was passed through the first round of testimony with the Utilities, Telecommunications and Energy joint committee prior to end of the legislative session on July 31. No action will occur on the bill during the break, which will run through Labor Day. When the new session opens, MassAccess will continue its efforts to support the bill and get it out of committee, though there is no information as to when the next vote on it will occur.

“I think we’re in a good position,” Garfield summarized. “People understand why this is important for our industry.”