Local-access television channels, once an important tool for cable companies looking to turn a community’s residents into customers, are now literally being shoved aside.

The channels — run by local governments and nonprofit organizations, and one of the only outlets for a certain kind of local programming — used to be found in the single digits on your cable box — prime real estate for catching eyes.

But more and more they are being relegated to the deep reaches of the ever-expanding cable universe; in Maine, local-access channels are in 1300 range.

As the Portland Press Herald reported this week, “Most of Maine’s cable access channels are now sandwiched between Public Broadcasting’s Create channel of cooking and home improvement shows and a subscription-based Chinese language channel.”

Critics say the move is intended to make the channels difficult to find. If viewership falls, they say, it will be easier for cable companies to drop the channels altogether — and the companies won’t have to pay for them anymore.

They pay for the channels now because of a federal law created in the infancy of cable television that forced the companies to negotiate with local governments for access to residents.

To sweeten the deal, cable companies offered, among other things, channels for public, educational and government content. Typically, cable companies provide the equipment for the local stations, and pay for ongoing operations through franchise fees.

Today across about 70 of those channels, Mainers can watch town council meetings, public hearings, youth sports, local events and other programming produced in their community.

Public access channels are an outlet for truly unique programming that residents may not be able to get anywhere else, and they play an important role in government transparency.

But there existence is hardly secure. Cable companies are now locked in a pitched battle for customers and other revenue with satellite television and other content providers, including streaming services. There are indications the companies want those valuable lower channel numbers to sell to other channels, and, besides, would prefer to no longer fund community television.

Besides the widespread move of public access to “digital Siberia,” as one critic put it, cable companies have also argued that the channels are unconstitutional. In addition, the FCC is now considering an industry-backed rule that would cut funding for local-access channels.

The changes are all happening too fast, and if we’re not careful a lot of local-access channels will disappear before we know it.

However, some changes are needed. Cable television may not be a good home for local access in the near future. One industry analysis shows that only 60 percent of households will have a traditional pay TV service by 2030. If local-access programming is to reach people at that point, it will have to go outside of cable to do so.

Internet streaming, where many local programs can be found, can’t do it alone — many Americans, particularly seniors and low-income residents, don’t have internet access.

That raises a lot of questions, not the least of which is how to replace the funding from cable companies that has for decades kept local-access stations afloat.

For the meantime, local and state officials should hold cable companies to the commitments they made to local-access television years ago as a way to get into our communities.

But that commitment is not going to hold forever. It’s time to figure out what’s next for local-access television.


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