Public access TV takes investment of time, money

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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. You might want to join the existing conversation on this topic. 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.

Three leaders of public access stations in other communities talked to me about what their jobs are like on Friday and I hope the information will reveal some possible ideas for Northfield Television (NTV).

Those three people were Jerry Abraham of Central Minnesota Access Television (no Web site that I found) in Little Falls, Mark Hotchkiss of Burnsville/Eagan Community Television and Chad Johnston of The Peoples Channel in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Little Falls is about an hour-and-a-half drive northwest of Northfield and has less than half Northfield’s population. Northfield has nearly 20,000 people, according to city-data.com. Burnsville and Eagan are suburbs of the Twin Cities, about a 40-minute drive north of Northfield, and have a combined population of about 130,000. Chapel Hill, home to the University of North Carolina, has a population of about 50,000. The Little Falls public access station is a for-profit company, the city governments of Burnsville and Eagan run their station and the Chapel Hill station is a non-profit.

Of the three stations, the one in Little Falls operates on the smallest budget—about $90,000 a year, which is money that comes mainly from the cable company’s franchise-fee payments to the city government. Governments can use franchise fee revenues for any public purpose. The 2,800 cable subscribers in Little Falls pay that fee. NTV receives just $30,000 in franchise-fee revenue yearly. I am asking Charter Communications, Northfield’s cable provider, to let me know how many subscribers are in Northfield. Each of the stations is 23 years old and operates two channels.

Of the $90,000, Abraham pays himself about $48,000 a year and works full-time including “quite a bit of evening and weekend” hours, he said. He employs three part-time videographers who earn about $10 an hour and he sometimes supplies pizza to volunteer members of a youth video club. Paul Hager, NTV’s executive director, pays himself $17,946 and works part-time at that job in addition to a full-time part-time * job as the technical director of cinema and media studies at Carleton College. He has no employees and about 10 people consistently volunteer, he has said.

  • Should NTV receive more money from Northfield’s Cable TV Fund? If so, how much?

The $90,000 is still a “shoe-string” budget, Abraham said. He buys used camera equipment on eBay.com and builds his own television sets. The station now has four cameras that stay in the studio and three that members of the public may borrow. NTV has one camcorder to lend. Hager said his station’s camera is used less and less because many people own their own camcorders now.

Two-and-a-half years ago, Abraham moved his station from the public high school to a space in the Great River Arts Association building, which is on the main drag in downtown Little Falls. The move, he said, is one step toward his goal of expanding the station. One day, he would like to take on the task of branching out into other communities to help them begin or expand their own public access television stations. NTV’s station in Northfield’s downtown is hardly visited by members of the community today.

The Little Falls station has begun to attract more and more participants since Abraham extended an invitation for people to record their own monthly, half-hour show at the station. The mayor, local sports analysts and senior citizens telling stories about the past are the most popular.

While Abraham seemed excited about what is happening at the Little Falls station, Hotchkiss said he grew disappointed with his station after the city governments of Burnsville and Eagan took over in 1998. The cable company now known as Comcast managed the station previously, and the city stepped in when the cable company no longer wanted to manage it.

“It seemed like a good idea at the time,” Hotchkiss said of the shift, and pointed out that the city government can pay employees much more than an independent organization can.

He employs nine people, broadcasts to 32,000 subscribers and has a budget that fluctuates between $850,000 and $1.2 million, he said.

Burnsville and Eagan governments consistently disagreed about the management of the station, Hotchkiss said. So, as of this week, the station is splitting to give each city its own programming. That programming, however, is not the kind Hotchkiss would like to see on the station. The government-approved shows can seem one-sided, with documentaries about street-side curbs and bituminous concrete, Hotchkiss said, laughing.

Hotchkiss said he believed the ideal management could be if a cable company franchised with the state instead of individual cities and towns. That model already exists in some states. Hotchkiss believes it would reduce the conflict of interest he sees with government or local cable company management. In addition, he said the fees a cable company pays to support educational and government programming (PEG) should go directly to the public access station instead of routing through the government as it does now.

I asked him what he thought about PEG fees going to other organizations that disseminated educational and governmental information, such as community Web sites. Hotchkiss said the idea seemed reasonable, but that cable companies might be reluctant to support content that would be available to people who aren’t cable customers.

As for advice that NTV could possibly use, Hotchkiss said he believed it’s important for public access stations to network with other stations through organizations such as the Alliance for Community Media or the Minnesota Cable Communications Association. He also said a station should have plenty of shows that are consistently popular with viewers such as children’s concerts and high school sports in order to “sell” local-government and nationally produced public programming.

In North Carolina, a cable company now franchises at a state level, but Johnston said that has only resulted in less funding for his Chapel Hill station. His budget is $123,000 and he employs two full-time staff members and several part-time workers.

Johnston said that as a result, he has had to find ways to raise additional revenue by charging service and member fees and selling advertisements. He also barters with local businesses by exchanging advertising space on television for, as an example, food for volunteers.

Johnston also collaborates with other non-profits to work toward common educational goals. For example, the station partnered with an arts center to offer classes in media arts. That kind of teamwork has been especially helpful, he said, in gaining the support of local government officials.

Update 12/20 4 p.m.: I corrected several grammatical errors in the story, removing the word “moved” from the first sentence and removing some extra words from the paragraph third from the bottom.

Update 12/22 3 p.m.: Griff Wigley filled me in on the following info: While Northfield’s official 2000 census is 17,000 and recent estimates place it near 20,000, that includes the 5,000+ college students. So for this NTV story, I think a population estimate of 13,000 is more relevant for comparing us to other cities since none of the college students are potential cable subscribers.

*I indicate corrections with a strikethrough mark through the mistake, followed by the correct text.

5 comments to  (Including One Discussion Thread)Public access TV takes investment of time, money

  • 1

    Griff Wigley filled me in on the following info: While Northfield’s official 2000 census is 17,000 and recent estimates place it near 20,000, that includes the 5,000+ college students. So for this NTV story, I think a population estimate of 13,000 is more relevant for comparing us to other cities since none of the college students are potential cable subscribers.

  • 2

    Bonnie,

    Why is it more relevant to assume that the college students are not cable subscribers. When I was in college, the three things I need were Internet, Cable TV and a cold one. I think we should compare ourselves to a town of 20,000 in this instance.

    I am really enjoying reading this story. There is a gentleman that is renting the space next to the Historical Society until Dec 31 for his art gallery and he really wants to broaden NTV’s base and reach. He just wants to improve the station. His name is Derk Hanson, you should talk to him about this subject.

  • 3

    I am not sure. But then wouldn’t that mean that the colleges are paying for the cable for every student in the dorm? So it is kinda like each student would be paying for it?

  • 4
    Melissa Reeder says:

    St. Olaf provides the triple play to their on-campus residents. By “triple play”, I mean voice, data and video. Craig Dunton (Telco Director) at St. Olaf Telco has told me it’s a simple package with a few sports channels. They got into the video business because Charter (at the time) did not provide the variety of channels they were seeking — I believe it was a mix of foreign language education channels. The video offering would not be available to anyone off campus, as the City has a CableTV franchise agreement allowing access to right-of-ways.

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