Shift expected to boost Somerville Media Center funding by $1 million over the next three years
SOMERVILLE, MA – The growing national trend of cable TV subscribers “cord cutting” to switch from cable TV to streaming or other viewing options is putting Somerville Public, Educational, and Government (PEG) Access Television services in peril, and Mayor Katjana Ballantyne is poised to take action to preserve these vital resources.
Since the 1970s, the City of Somerville has funded all three popular and well-used services with fees collected from local cable television providers, known as “franchise fees.” But as those profit-linked fees have steadily declined, this funding source can no longer sustain all three services for the community.
Today, the City is announcing a proposal to fund Educational and Government television services using the City’s general budget going forward, rather than using franchise fees, and to allot all of the annual 5% franchise fees, rather than one-third of them, to Public Access. This will provide more durable financial support for all PEG services and more funding for the Somerville Media Center.
The proposed shift will allot the full 5% franchise fees paid by Comcast and Astound (formerly RCN) to Public Access services, which the City contracts with the independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit Somerville Media Center to provide. It will also increase the Media Center’s share of equipment funding from one-third to one-half of equipment funds received on top of the franchise fee.
Subject to City Council approval of annual budgets for GovTV and EdTV services, the funding shift is projected to provide the Somerville Media Center with more than $1 million in additional funding over the next three years, bringing their total cable-provider funded payments to a projected $2.1 million for the years 2023 to 2025. As the City’s designated public access provider, the Media Center is uniquely eligible to benefit from this funding source due to the provisions within the federal Cable Communications Policy Act. The proposed changes will be memorialized in the Media Center’s 3-yearly grant agreement with the City.
“All three access TV providers offer key services and equitable information access to our community. The community relies on these services. They rely on the alternative access to City and Council meetings, events, information, and emergency alerts provided by GovTV government access. They rely on the sports, event, and learning programming produced by EdTV government access. They rely on the rich community programming, youth programs, and skills training offered by Somerville Media Center as part of public access. This solution will help keep these offerings sustainable amid a changing media landscape,” said Mayor Ballantyne.
“We’re very happy to talk about this long-term funding for the media center,” said Somerville Media Center Executive Director Kat Powers. “We’re turning 40 in March. We’re not there yet, but this is a great first step to making sure we have a secure next four decades.”
The Media Center is also facing an additional burden due to damage to their current location at 90-92 Union Square, a City-owned building where they have operated for decades. After significant water intrusion in 2019, it was determined the building needs significant repair and renovation.
“I’d much prefer that the 90-92 Union Square Building was not in need of major repair. But as we navigate this challenge alongside the Media Center, it is my hope that this additional support will help seed their fundraising for resources to not just survive a move to a new space in Somerville, but to build something even better,” said Mayor Ballantyne. “We have likewise been working to help ensure that the building’s other tenant, the Massachusetts Alliance of Portuguese Speakers, secures a new Somerville home where they can continue to provide their vital services to our community.”
“We’re really delighted to work with the city to preserve the programs of the Somerville Media Center,” said SMC board president Jesse Buckley. “I want to take a moment to thank the board members, artists and producers of SMC whose vocal support helped us get to this point. We’re very appreciative to the Mayor for these continuing talks.”
Both national and local data as well as local feedback indicate that PEG access services are highly valued, and serve as equity tools, providing alternative access to civic and community events and processes, among other benefits. Pew Research Center data and other sources consistently show that seniors, low-income persons, and people of color are more likely to use local television services for information than other groups.
Somerville Media Center grew out of the first cable access center in Massachusetts, Somerville Community Access Television, and as always, Somerville leads the way. It has been home to the world’s oldest continuously running access program, Dead Air Live; home to the first teleconference for the Deaf, home of the first lesbian soap opera. Its adult members are majority minority, with programs in English, Haitian-Creole, Portuguese and Spanish. Its youth program serves families from all backgrounds, teaching the youngest creators how to tell their stories. Now as Somerville Media Center, with TV and radio studios, the media center works to bridge the digital divide in Somerville and beyond.
The City’s GovTV and EdTV services received more than 450,000 YouTube video views in 2022, with more watching on television and website livestreams. Local feedback confirms many rely on the CityTV’s multilingual programming currently in six languages, digital bulletin board, and expansive video coverage of City, community, and Council meetings, as well as City and School events and educational programming. Sports coverage of student athletics is a significant draw with family members and seniors reporting they rely on it to view games they could otherwise not attend, and some students using footage to support athletic scholarship applications. CityTV staff also provided critical support services during the pandemic, sharing emergency information and establishing hybrid meeting options for the City Council and community meetings.
All three access services have received national awards and recognition.