Madison’s community-access television station, WYOU-TV, used to have three paid staff members. But in 2010, when Wisconsin eliminated subscriber funding for such programming, the station was forced to lay off its entire staff.
The 24-hour-a-day station has been limping along ever since with volunteer help, donations, free programming and aging equipment, said Barbara Vedder, president of WYOU’s board of directors. The station had $174,969 in revenues in 2009, but that dropped to $52,207 in 2011 after subscriber fees were eliminated, according to WYOU’s federal tax forms.
“(Subscriber fees) was our main source of funding, and the main support for our organization, and it was totally stripped away,” she said.
But there is hope for WYOU, which airs independent network Free Speech TV programs, horror movies on Saturday Nite Frights, religious shows, an animal-rights program, concerts by the Capitol City Band and other local and nationally produced shows.
The group has moved into Madison’s new Central Library, where it will have access to office and studio space and equipment it can use to help train members of the public on how to make their own videos.
And if federal legislation sponsored by Sen. Tammy Baldwin passes, stations such as WYOU may be able to once again provide more robust local programming.
Earlier this month, the Madison Democrat, along with Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., sponsored the Community Access Preservation Act, or CAP Act. The bill attempts to undo some of the effects of recent law and rule changes that have gutted funding for public access, educational and government (PEG) channels.
The bill has powerful friends — and enemies. It is supported by the National League of Cities, the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Baldwin’s office said between 20 and 40 percent of local access programming is religious.
The cable industry beat back a previous measure introduced by Baldwin in 2011 when she was serving in the House. That bill never got out of committee.
“We oppose the ‘CAP’ Act,” said Brian Dietz, vice president of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association. “In today’s competitive video marketplace, it’s not prudent or fair for local franchising authorities to impose additional PEG-related costs that would drive up costs only for cable customers ... providing even further disparity between cable and satellite customers who do not support local community programming.”
According to Baldwin, Wisconsin is among six states that have completely eliminated fees that cable subscribers used to pay to fund public access channels. Prior to 2010, subscribers in Wisconsin paid anywhere from 10 cents to about $1 a month for equipment, salaries and studio space that could be used to produce local programming.
Local governments used to negotiate PEG fees with the cable companies through local franchise agreements. But a bipartisan 2007 state law eliminated the practice, implementing statewide cable franchises that ended those fees altogether in 2010.
Since PEG fees were eliminated, such stations — about 80 across Wisconsin — are left to rely on money from local governments, which receive a separate 5 percent franchise fee from cable companies, as well as donations and volunteer help.
“I cannot think of a single station in Wisconsin that is not stressed with trying to provide the same services with budgets that are much smaller than they used to be,” said Mary Cardona, executive director of Wisconsin Community Media, which advocates for public-access TV.
And not all governments are willing to share the fees they get from the cable companies, Cardona said. Some use the revenue to fund their own channels, which cover council and board meetings, press conferences and the like. Or they simply use the fee to help balance the municipal budget.
“Each community can use the franchise fee however it wants,” she said. “A lot of communities went through some really tough times during the recession and decided to keep the franchise fees. Some of them started charging PEG stations rent ... or giving them less money.”
Thomas Moore, executive director of the Wisconsin Cable Communications Association, said cable operators in Wisconsin pay about $50 million a year in franchise fees, a cost that is tacked onto subscribers’ bills. Municipalities are free to use that money to support PEG programming, he said, but most don’t.
Moore said Baldwin’s bill would add up to $20 million a year in PEG fees to subscribers’ cable bills in Wisconsin. He added that public-access channels — established in the 1970s and ’80s before the Internet — are anachronisms in a digital age when anyone can put videos on YouTube.
Another blow to local programming was a 2007 Federal Communications Commission ruling that said PEG fees could only be used for equipment and not operating expenses and salaries.
Baldwin’s bill would:
• Restore PEG fees to levels they were before they were eliminated, or up to 2 percent of gross revenue, whichever is greater.
• Ensure that PEG fees could be used for any related purpose, including employee salaries.
• Reaffirm that cable operators must deliver PEG channels without additional charge with the same quality, accessibility and functionality provided to local broadcast stations.
Responded Dietz: “While the cable industry has supported PEG community programming for over 30 years, now is not the time to add new layers of regulation that would increase costs and undermine existing contracts.”
Vedder said restoring the PEG fee in Madison would help WYOU, which appears on Charter Channel 95 or digital Channel 991. Viewers also can watch the channel at wyou.org. Even without that, however, she said finding a home in the Central Library has breathed new life into Madison’s eclectic public-access channel.
“The beauty of community access programming is virtually anyone can put their ideas on the air,” said Vedder, a former Madison City Council and Dane County Board member. “You see different perspectives that you never, ever get anywhere else.
“It’s a powerful tool, and a powerful resource for the community.”