North TV: A Case Study for Online Paywalls

Updated: Aug 09, 2023

North TV logo and image of a person streaming a graduation ceremony on a laptop

Peter Gay, executive director of North TV, the community media channel serving North Attleborough and Plainville, Mass., was never in a hurry to put content online. After all, the people who pay the salaries and operating expenses of the channel are cable subscribers.

When he did some contract work for the NFHS (National Federation of State High School Associations) Network, Gay learned the organization offered access to high school sports coverage online – but only through a subscription service. That gave him an idea: Why not charge for live streaming and VOD content at the local level?

The process took a while, but North TV launched its paid service about two years ago. Originally, government meetings were accessible for free as a public service – but in September 2022, all content was put behind a paywall.

“There was, as you’d suspect, some grumbling,” Gay admitted. But he equated North TV with the local newspaper, which doesn’t offer free subscriptions. “We are no different,” he argued.

The only exception is for current local Comcast and Verizon cable subscribers living in the two towns. They can upload a copy of their cable bill and be granted a one-year subscription at no charge, a policy that Gay said was “very well received.”

Gay set a very modest goal of $2,000 in revenue for the first fiscal year, which ended in July. At a rate of $2.99 per month, North TV needed almost 670 monthly subscriptions to meet its goal. The service launched at the start of the high school football season, a popular pastime in the area – and the channel reached about 20% of its annual goal on one night, taking in almost $400 in subscriptions.

According to Gay, North TV finished the year with about $5,000 in subscriptions. Not bad at all, but it doesn’t replace the funds lost when customers cut the cord. Based on the franchise fee, he estimated the channel loses about $130 with every lost household.

“For me, it’s the principle of the thing,” Gay said. “It’s fair to protect the people who have cable television. If you’re not paying for it, you shouldn’t receive it.”

Many of the complaints were focused on the lack of free online access to the channel’s in-depth programming around local elections. When town officials asked what it would take to lift the paywall for election coverage and government meetings, North TV asked the town to cover the basic production expenses for that programming. “That way, I could look a cable subscriber in the eye and say the money you are paying is not being used to produce content for non-subscribers,” Gay explained.

As a result, Plainville now provides North TV with an additional $25,000 in annual funding. Meetings and election programming for Plainville are available for free on the North TV site, but the channel still charges a $2.99 monthly fee for all other live and VOD programming for non-cable subscribers. Gay is working with officials on the price to do the same in North Attleborough.

Are you considering creating a pay streaming service for your PEG content? Gay has some advice. First, if you don’t have a strong relationship with the issuer of your license – be it a town manager, mayor, community board, etc. – develop one quickly.

Also, be sure to review your license and make sure there are no requirements regarding online content. If you are not legally obligated to provide your content online for free, your next step is to get the support of your board of directors. If the decision is made to move forward with a pay service, give viewers plenty of warning – this should not be an overnight flip of the switch.

Most importantly, Gay said once you implement a pay strategy, don’t back down. North TV received pushback once the transition was made, but Gay had a simple response: “I said it’s not fair to the cable subscriber, plain and simple.”

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