Could proposed cut to cable access threaten democracy in Vermont?

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COLCHESTER, Vt. (WCAX) The Federal Communications Commission is moving to adopt a new rule that community television groups in Vermont say could force them to shut down, leaving about 100 people without jobs.

In short, cable companies no longer would have to foot the bill for cable access channels. Our Dom Amato shows you how this decision could impact democracy in Vermont.

"This is often the only connection our residents have to local government and things like that," said Kevin Christopher, the executive director of Lake Champlain Access Television and the president of the Vermont Access Network.

The Vermont Access Network serves 25 stations in the state from Bennington to St. Albans.

"Local access provides a variety of local services and programming," Christopher said.

And one of the most watched features is the local government coverage from city council, select board and school board meetings.

"We have a lot of people who aren't able to get to the meetings because of work or other obligations who are tuning in after the fact to see what happened," Christopher said.

But these local access stations in Vermont and throughout the country could be closed by next year. An FCC rule change would allow cable operators to cut off a major portion of funding leading to a decline in revenue.

"I'm certain that a lot of us would have to shut our doors if this rule goes through," Christopher said.

"I think the public really does lose in that case," said Geoffrey Urbanik, the deputy town manager in Colchester.

Urbanik says attendance at select board meetings are historically low, but that doesn't mean residents aren't paying attention. Public meetings are archived and even streamed live online. They can also be rebroadcast on cable.

"And probably if they can't get that at home, I don't see them coming to the meetings," he said. "That means fewer and fewer will know what's going on in these meetings."

Urbanik says it's important for local governments to spread their messages to the community and if they're left in the dark, it's a lose-lose situation.

"I think it's potentially a huge downside for democracy in Vermont," Urbanik said.

The rule change is expected to be finalized by mid-next year. Christopher says stations will feel the effects soon after but he expects there to be an appeal to the change.

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