NTV’s future uncertain after 23 years of providing public access

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Note: This is a story in progress. Please see my bulleted questions in green and help me move the story forward. I would like commenters to write the question(s) they are addressing into their post. I’m excited to read about what people have to say! Please email me directly at RepJNorthfield@gmail.com if you would rather not post publicly.

Photo by Josh Rowan A letter "N," once part of a downtown supermarket sign, now stands for NTV in the entryway of the station.
Photo by Josh Rowan. A letter "N," once part of a downtown supermarket sign, now stands for "NTV" in the entryway of the station.

Paul Hager, who is NTV’s founder and president, told me on Thursday that Northfield Community Television (NTV), which is an independent public access station on Channel 12, is operating on a “lights-on” budget these days.

I asked Hager what “lights-on budget” meant. He replied, saying NTV receives $2,500 a month from the franchise-fee revenue sitting in the city’s Cable TV Fund. That amount, which totals $30,000 a year, is enough to pay rent, insurance, utility bills and a modest salary for him to produce some content and air some governmental meetings. He has no employees and about 10 volunteers who regularly produce content for the non-profit organization.

The station is on the second floor of 309 Division Street View Larger Map, which is under the relatively new ownership of JB Enterprises. Hager said he is optimistic the new owners will repair the building very soon. In the past two years, he said, the station has been uncomfortable to use because of heating and cooling problems. But, he said, most people now produce video at home and give him a digital file. The station houses the public access channel’s video equipment. Hager does not keep regular hours at the station, but the public can contact him via NTV’s Web site. Phone: 507-645-6917. Email: NTV@charter.net.

As an example of the kind of programming NTV airs daily, the schedule for Dec. 15 included:

  • Northfield UMC Adult Forum: A Talk by Jay Walljasper
  • I Cantanti 2003 Concert: A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols
  • Twin City RNC Pre-emptive House Raids: What about the Bill of Rights? Produced by Andy Kornkven
  • St. John’s Church Service
  • Dennis Kucinich Rally at Carleton College on Feb. 21 2004
  • I wondered why the city government isn’t allocating as much money to NTV as it used to.
  • I also wondered what the general public thinks of NTV.
  • What does the station bring to the community?
  • Could NTV do more, even with its small budget?
  • Should the community show more support for the station?
  • Have other forms of information sharing, such as the Internet, replaced the need for public access television?

What is the Cable TV Fund?

Cable systems have offered access channels to the public since the 1970s so that people could make programs for others in their own communities, according to the Museum of Broadcast Communications Web site.

I first learned the basics of the Cable TV Fund by reading an article Jaci Smith, managing editor of the Northfield News, wrote on Nov. 28., which had the headline, “Cable fund holds wealth of possibilities.” Smith said city governments collect two kinds of fees from cable television companies and that money flows into the Cable TV Fund. The cable company serving Northfield is Charter Communications. There is currently about $766,000 in the Cable TV Fund.

One kind of fee is called a franchise fee. Time Warner Cable’s Web site gives a brief overview of the rules of the Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984.

“The franchise fee is intended to compensate a community for the cable operator’s use of the local rights-of-way, and to offset any costs associated with administering the local cable franchise,” the Web site reads.

A city government can use the franchise fees to pay for any public service. According to Smith’s article, cable companies pay Northfield about $100,000 a year in franchise fees.

In addition to franchise fees, cable companies also pay a fee that a city government can use only for purposes of public education and government (PEG) programming. Smith reported PEG fees total up to $15,000 a year.

Deb Little, the department manager for the City Clerk’s Office, said she could help me find out how much money in the Cable TV fund is from franchise fees and how much is from PEG fees by the end of the week.

Additionally, I asked what PEG fees are paying for now, if anything. Little said she would have to research that, too.

Kathleen McBride, Northfield’s Financial Director, said most recently, the city government used that money to install a new video recording system in the City Council’s chambers. The work on the nearly $100,000 equipment upgrade finished in 2007.

Why does NTV receive less funding than in the past?

The $30,000 NTV receives a year is less than half what the fund used to provide NTV in the 1990s, Hager told me. The station has been around since the 1985. I wondered about the dramatic decrease and how it had affected the quality of the station, if at all. I don’t own a television and so have never watched the station’s programming.

Scott Davis, a city council member who has worked to define the relationship between city government and the station in the past, told me on Friday that changes in state law led to the decrease in funds. Davis did not have time to explain further because I visited him in his photography studio on Bridge Square and he had a client waiting.

  • I did not find a copy of the Minnesota statue online that could apply to the matter. So I am still searching for more information about how the law changed and how it affected contracts between the city government and NTV.

I did have time to ask Davis if there were any other reasons why the city government might have cut NTV’s funding, such as NTV not providing enough of a service in exchange for the money. Davis said that was not the reason.

Hager told me that all he knew about it was that, a few years ago, the cable company and city government did not renew a contract that outlined how much PEG fee and/or franchise fee revenue could go to NTV. For a time, NTV operated without a contract and ran on savings and the city government paid no funds to the station, Hager told me. In 2005, the City Council decided to allot the $30,000 a year in franchise fee revenue to keep the operation running.

Photo by Josh Rowan. Paul Hager stands in one of the station's studios on Monday.
Photo by Josh Rowan. Paul Hager stands in one of the station's studios on Monday.

Should we change how public access television works?

Hager had asked for more than renewed funding at that time, however.

He had come up with a four-page proposal to make dramatic changes in the way NTV worked.

hager-contract-sshot

The summary bullet points of his proposal are:

  • The primary attraction of public access television has been erased by changes in technology. It is time to re-think the model for public access.
  • We could capitalize on the digital technology revolution that has created a visual storyteller in every household that has a video camcorder.
  • We can and should provide a modest financial incentive to spur production of community programming.
  • We must create a higher level of visibility for public access and invite local institutions to take an active role in creating programming.

The proposal sounded to me like an interesting model, not wholly unlike the goals of the Representative Journalism project.

Davis said one of the reasons Hager’s proposal never went into action is because the City Council has a lot to do. When the council decided to renew some funding to the station, it considered the situation fixed for at least a little while, he said. Davis compared it to patching a crack in a window. The window still isn’t a good window, Davis said, but you can live with it.

In addition, Davis said Hager’s proposal relied a lot on individuals who would be willing to work as videographers in exchange for a small amount of grant money and there might not be enough people willing to perform such work.
I could see his point, but I’m wondering how many other people would feel the same way.

Davis said the new members of City Council and the new mayor might revisit the city’s relationship with NTV in the coming years, but the struggling economy might now present another obstacle to further funding or attention.

  • At that, I wondered how many people might deem the station undeserving of any funds in the near future. In tough times, some people might think that $30,000 a year could be better spent on something else.

As a journalist, I shuddered at the thought of another of America’s independent, information-distribution services closing down. However, I also believe that those services do have to learn how to better compete for attention in order to survive.

I put in a request for data at city hall on Friday to take a look at all the contracts the city has had with NTV over the years. I plan to share that information here so we can better see what kind of service NTV has provided to Northfield over the years.

Should the city government control public access television?

Smith quoted McBride in her article about the Cable TV fund, saying, “McBride said she recommends using only part of the money so that if the city does decide to get into the public access broadcasting business it has the startup funds to do so,” Smith wrote.

I asked McBride via email to expand on what Smith reported.

McBride wrote, “It would be a Council decision – and while I’m not close to the process (at all!) – I do think there is interest in starting a public access function – where we would buy the equipment and hire a company or employees to run it.”

I haven’t heard any of the City Council’s discussions on the matter, but I’m confused about why the council would consider making city workers take on the public access station responsibilities. I imagine there could be cost savings but I’m not sure how. I wonder, too, if the city would cease to fund NTV altogether, and what would become of the station in that situation?

Hager pointed out that if the city government controlled the station, and someone produced something controversial, the government would then have control over when to air the program (perhaps during a time when no one would watch it). Right now, Hager has ultimate control of the programming schedule.

But are people producing content that challenges the government, or any other institution for that matter? Would they if Hager’s proposed model were adopted?

Update: 12/15 7 p.m: I forgot to put Kathleen McBride’s full name and title when I first referenced her in the story, so I fixed it.

Also, I wanted to note that you can still borrow a camcorder and tripod from NTV and use the station’s editing equipment to produce video content for the station.

58 thoughts on “NTV’s future uncertain after 23 years of providing public access”

  1. With this story the “problem” is not clear cut and so the solutions even less so.

    It seems the community has some decisions to make about NTV and the use of Cable TV Fund dollars, but there is almost nothing pressing the City Council or Paul Hager to make those decisions pronto.

    I would like to believe that I am one part of moving interested members in the community toward decision making by gathering information for them and stimulating discussion.

    However, by doing my job as a RepJ reporter, I am just one part of a larger process. It’s up to strong supporters of public television (are you out there?) and, to some extent, the city government to set priorities and goals and a plan to reach them.

    As Melissa Reader, IT director for the city, put it to me this morning, oftentimes efforts like public access television stations rely on a “champion:” One energetic soul who is skilled at building and maintaining volunteer support. Paul Hager told me he would be willing to hand things off. Any takers?

  2. Bonnie, as I said on another thread, I think the first step is for the city to provide a short summary of:
    1. what the city is doing now in its website, NTV, etc. and what that costs.
    2. what money is available each year from the cable access money and how it can be used under the law.
    3. what is on the city’s IT and communications agenda for improving or expanding its operations.

    If people know what can be done, they might be interested in working on the possibilities. There are few things more frustrating than asking people to step forward and then telling them that there’s no money or no legal ability to move forward.
    I think waiting for one person to come forward runs the risk of one vocal but narrow view to control what should be a community process. The summary could be sent to Northfield.org, KYMN, the News, the League of Women Voters, the colleges, anyone who’s already involved in communications/media. That’s certainly not the whole solution, but it’s a good start.

  3. BTW, this really isn’t a ‘problem’ but a wonderful opportunity. The lack of an established NTV bureaucracy and inventory of equipment and studio space makes it even easier to really create something new and wonderful incorporating all kinds of media and all parts of the community.
    It’s all very exciting.

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