WESTBROOK —  Local public access stations are hopeful about a recent ruling that will return them to low number channels, in spite of the fact that cable companies are likely to appeal.

A U.S. District Court judge this month upheld a Maine law, passed last year, that requires cable companies to return public access stations back to their low number channels and make other quality improvements. Public access stations provide programming made by the public, air local government meetings and announcements.

“I’m happy to see the ruling. I have no doubt that there will be attempts to appeal. I’ve got a feeling that the law is on our side on this one,” said Barry Dodd, the Westbrook Community TV coordinator.

The Internet and Television Association, which filed the lawsuit, has said it is disappointed with the court’s ruling and was considering its next steps.

In 2017, cable companies, including Spectrum, which covers the region, opted to put local public access channels in “digital Siberia,” moving them from easy to find channels like 2 or 3 to channels back in the 1000’s. While no data is available on the impact on viewership, stations felt the hit.

“Moving a channel that’s been there for 30 years – everyone knew where it was, it was channel 2 – that was tough,” said Michael McDate, manager of Falmouth’s public access TV.

McDate sent out notices about the Falmouth channel change, but the move still created problems for his viewers.

“It’s difficult for someone who’s been using it this whole time. Those common viewers didn’t make it to our station when it was moved to 1301,” he said.

For stations that thrive on local content, the switch didn’t just mean a possible decrease in viewership, it also meant a loss of programming itself.

“People who regularly produced shows and were appearing on our channel always were stopped by strangers who wanted to talk to them about their shows. They got the sense from this that people were watching their programs. After the channel change, this stopped happening,” said Tom Handel, executive director at Portland Media Center.

The change meant that Portland Media Center went from 30 locally produced shows, to about five or six.

“We also just had an on-air fundraiser for the station. The last one we had was before the channel change and we raised over $5,000. The one at the end of February raised less than half that, and most of the donations came from people closely connected with the station,” Handel said.

The recent ruling also addresses quality, especially requiring cable companies to broadcast the local content in the same format it is provided, such as high definition TV.

Now, no matter how content is filmed, cable companies can lower the quality of it for broadcasting, saying that hi-def broadcasts use up too much bandwidth.

Stations like Westbrook have been filming in high definition for a while now, but have yet to actually broadcast its content in that quality.

“It’s a mystery to me why this hasn’t been available to us since it’s implementation. I hate going down this path, but one could argue that there could be reasons why the cable company would want our broadcast to look as inferior as possible,” Dodd said. “Couple that with having them move our channels to digital Siberia and one could get the sense that they are trying to slowly erase us.”

Patti Mikkelsen, vice chairman of New Gloucester’s Cable TV Committee, said the crew there has been using “rather anachronistic equipment, some dating back to 1998” and records in standard definition.

“NGTV is long overdue for a complete equipment upgrade, and the promise of telecasting in HD provides incentive for an extensive station overhaul,” she said.

Despite the likelihood of cable companies’ appeal of the ruling, local stations remain hopeful.

“Thankfully, the community media gang are made up of very crafty, and creative people who aren’t afraid to advocate for themselves. They’re very punk rock. I wouldn’t mess with them,” Dodd said. “I’m proud to be associated with this dedicated community of broadcasters, and I think the law will be on our side.

“For all my friends in the Maine Community Media sphere” Dodd continued, “and to all who benefit from access to our content, I sincerely hope this gets settled soon.

 

 

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