CTSB is holding its collective breath amid FCC proposed rule changes

Leo Mahoney, former station manager of CTSB, speaks at the Five Town Cable Advisory Committee on Tuesday, Dec. 10. (Evan Triantafilidis)

LEE — Klas Bergman just wants to consume his local and statewide TV news.

The self-proclaimed “journalist junkie” and Great Barrington resident balances a media diet of browsing online news, watching national broadcast news, reading newspapers and listening to National Public Radio.

But for the former resident of Washington, D.C., and a former journalist, Bergman has found it nearly impossible to find a signal for news disseminating from the eastern part of the state and other local TV broadcast stations in the commonwealth.

He’s also found it difficult to find the local cable access channel, Community Television for the Southern Berkshires (CTSB), through the guide feature from his Charter Spectrum cable package.

Equipped with a reporter’s notepad and pen, Bergman found himself at a Tuesday, Dec. 10 Cable Advisory Committee meeting, pleading his case for local and statewide broadcast news to return to the airwaves in the Berkshires.

“When I turn on the TV for news, it’s Albany, Albany, Albany,” Bergman said. “And I live in Massachusetts. I’m interested in what’s happening in the capital of Massachusetts, which is Boston.”

The Five Town Cable Advisory Committee holds quarterly meetings and represents the towns of Great Barrington, Lee, Lenox, Sheffield and Stockbridge in matters involving cable TV Lee-based nonprofit organization, CTSB.

The local access network airs regular coverage of Select Board meetings of each of the five towns it serves as well as school committee meetings of four separate school districts in the Berkshires.

CTSB hosted its fourth meeting of the year, which also served as a small retirement party for the outgoing station manager of 16 years, Leo Mahoney.

Bergman said that his son lives in Boston and works for the CBS-owned and -operated WBZ TV station, but says he is unable to get the channel in the Berkshires, unless he goes online.

“I feel like I live in New York State,” said Bergman. “I think it’s a big problem, for me at least.”

Bergman’s complaints are far from the first time that the committee or CTSB has heard them, and often there are no answers or representation from the cable company, Charter, at the quarterly committee meetings.

But at the Dec. 10 meeting, Bergman’s concerns were heard by Spectrum’s director of governmental affairs, John Maher. A representative from Spectrum had not attended the last two committee meetings held in June and September, according to the committee.

As part of Spectrum’s report to the committee, Maher relayed the news that the cable company would not be adding either the Boston-based WCVP station or the Springfield-based WWLP station to the cable packages available in the Berkshires.

“There are no plans to bring the out-of-market stations back to the Berkshire line-up,” Maher said.

Maher said that a standard definition signal of the Springfield-based WSHM station is available in the Berkshires, and also in the Spectrum mobile app.

Maher also fielded complaints from committee members who said they were receiving their bills in the mail sometimes on the day the bill was due and that CTSB was not showing up in the cable provider’s guide function.

Bergman said he had no problem with Spectrum’s telephone, internet or TV services himself, but told the board, “I wish you guys on the committee would hammer these guys harder.”

Admittedly, Bergman says he has never watched CTSB.

It was last August when CTSB, along with other local public access channels nationwide, learned of proposed Federal Communications Commission rule changes that would allow cable operators to treat funding for cable-related costs as in-kind services. Those in-kind services, which are yet to be defined or come with a specific dollar amount, could be deducted from the five-percent cable franchise fees that stations like CTSB receive from cable companies.

Traditionally, CTSB has received a five percent cable franchise fee from Charter, which comes out to a yearly check for the amount of roughly $420,000, according to Mahoney. That money makes for nearly 90 percent of the station’s yearly funds, says Mahoney.

For CTSB and other access centers, the unknown price of the unknown in-kind services is a threat to the budgeting operation that already heavily relies on the cut they receive from cable companies.

“One, we don’t know what that means, and two, how do you monetize that?” Mahoney told the Record after the meeting. “That’s what we’re waiting to find out.”

CTSB has three primary channels as most PEG (Public, Educational and Government) stations do, which document various municipal and education meetings. It is unclear whether the cable companies, under the new FCC ruling, could be able to charge a fee based on the value of each channel CTSB broadcasts.

“I’ve got fiber [lines] going to all five town halls, the four high schools, and the Sheffield Senior Center,” Mahoney told the Record after the meeting. “That’s nine lines that they could say they maintain. Do they?”

The reins of CTSB will be passed from Mahoney to Rich Frederick, beginning next month.

Frederick, who previously worked for Dalton Community Television in Dalton, says that since CTSB receives an annual check, rather than a quarterly check, it is likely the nearby Pittsfield Community Television would be notified of any immediate changes from the cable operators before CTSB is.

CTSB is one of the only access centers in the Commonwealth that receives a quarterly check — in March — compared to others that receive the quarterly five percent cable franchise checks.

Mahoney believes CTSB will stay afloat during a time of uncertainty, but says efforts have been made to increase awareness of the production facility and membership benefits.

For $15 a year, members can take advantage of studio time, state of the art equipment and edit rooms to produce high quality video projects. CTSB will resume training classes next month and will have Saturday hours as well, said Frederick.

Mahoney says when he first started at CTSB, membership was in the 30s. When the new CTSB studio was built in 2014, he says there were 46 members. Mahoney now leaves the station with membership in the 130s.

In his last week before retirement, Mahoney is positive for the immediate future of the nonprofit.

“I think we’re going to be okay for our March check,” Mahoney told the Record. “I really do, only because Pittsfield was good on their last quarter check.”

Mahoney says CTSB is in good hands now under the management of Frederick, and that he hopes to see the FCC ruling play out in an equitable way.

“I just hope it’s fair,” said Mahoney.  It’s the law now, so it’s not going to change, but I want to make sure it’s fair and not devastating to the access centers.”

The first quarter meeting of the Five Town Cable Advisory Committee will be held in March at the Stockbridge Town Hall.

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