A screenshot of Bath Community Television, which is available for free on demand online.

BATH — Bath city officials fear that a proposal from the Federal Communications Commission could spell the end for Bath Community Television.

The commission has been considering a rule change since September that would allow providers, such as Comcast, to replace monetary franchise fees with in-kind contributions.

Bath’s franchise agreement with Comcast requires the company to pay a 5 percent franchise fee of its gross annual revenues from Bath to the city. Last year, that fee generated $119,977 in revenue for the city. Almost $50,000 of that money is dedicated to funding the entire budget of Bath Community Television, according to Assistant City Manager Marc Meyers.

The Federal Communications Commission is considering a proposal to allow companies like Comcast to count in-kind contributions, such as channel capacity for Bath Community Television and connections to municipal buildings, toward that 5 percent franchise fee.

A Comcast representative directed questions about the proposal to The Internet & Television Association. That organization has filed comments with the commission in favor of counting in-kind contributions toward the franchise fee. In a filing on the proposal, The Internet & Television Association argued that while the Federal Communications Commission limits franchise fees to just five percent, local governments have abused the system by requiring in-kind contributions such as channel capacity for public access television, connections for municipal buildings and free advertising, among other things. Essentially, the cable companies are claiming that local governments are charging more than the 5 percent limit for franchise fees if one considers the in-kind contributions, which cost the companies money.

Meyers said that while the city does not know the exact monetary value of those in-kind contributions, counting them toward the franchise fee could significantly reduce the amount of revenue the city receives from Comcast. Theoretically at least, the rule change could eliminate the revenue source for Bath Community Television’s budget.

Meyers said that the letter was drawn up by staff and was not a part of any national or statewide campaign to lobby the Federal Communications Commission. In approving the letter unanimously, the city council also decided to forward its letter to the state’s congressional delegates to make them aware of the issue.

“Who knows where this will go moving forward,” said Meyers. “But it’s one of those things that it’s important to stay ahead of because BCTV is an important resource for our community.”

Founded in 2000, Bath Community Television airs free educational and public interest programming on channel 14 and streaming online. Bath Community Television Station Manager Steve Marois, who has been with the station from the start, says the station is an invaluable resource to the community, providing unrestricted access to local government meetings.

“We provide all of the city council meetings, planning board meetings, Regional School Unit 1 meetings — this is one source where people can see for themselves on television what is being said,” he said. “We give the whole thing. People get to see the entire meeting.”

For homebound residents or others who can’t attend meetings, the station allows them to keep tabs on city officials even if they can’t make it to city hall. The station also films and airs many local sports games, concerts, productions and community events so that those unable to attend can watch later.

The station also airs a number of shows created by local residents. In addition to Marois’ “Ridin’ Steel,” a show about motorcyclists in Maine. The station has a music show, “City of Ships,” airs the Patten Free Library’s Town History Series, and broadcasts a current events-style interview series called “This Issue” by local activist Bruce Gagnon.

“I’ve had my show on Bath and Brunswick public access for 15 years,” said Gagnon. “I’ve learned that people watch public access more than we realize – people come up to me in stores and talk about my shows. They are getting info on public access that would not be available anywhere else. I think public access is the only place where council meetings, parade coverage, local high school games, and many community voices can be heard.”

“Without public access we get corporate sanitized TV and everyone loses if that ever happens,” he added.

Marois added that residents would notice if the service was cut.

“To see that all possibly taken away, I think it would be felt across our cities,” said Marois. “I’d like to think that somehow, someway they would continue to provide this service to the people of Bath (if the franchise fees were cut).”

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