Vision may become reality
If you forgive the cramped studio, the decade-old recording equipment, and even the slightly fuzzy picture that emanates from the television screens inside the bandbox that is Foothills Community Access Television, Miles Everett has a secret to tell you.
“I have a vision that some day, we’ll have equipment that works and the tools that people need to get their vision out for this station. The time is going to come … I really believe that,” he said, squirming in his seat and peering into a bank of tiny monitors.
During a taping of the Nevada County News Hour at FCAT’s studios in St. Joseph’s Cultural Center, Everett watches from his perch in the control room as hosts Sharon Boivin and Eric Tomb pepper newly crowned Board of Supervisors chair Sue Horne with her vision for Nevada County.
Everett’s vision, and the vision of those with a vested interest in creating a strong outlet for community-access programming, includes replacing the outdated donated video editing equipment, analog cameras and consumer-oriented videotape machines with technology befitting a station that provides an average of 27 hours of community programming weekly.
That and scoring a wad of cash.
Those with ties to Nevada County’s public-access system are placing their hopes in a series of negotiations with the local cable provider to rework long-standing cable franchise agreements. In negotiating with Comcast, the cable company set to take over from AT&T in the coming weeks, they’re hoping to secure a veritable gold mine in compensation for allowing the cable company the use of transmission lines along public rights of ways.
Residents outside of Grass Valley and Nevada City city limits are served by USA Media.
When the cable franchise agreements are renegotiated, it could dramatically change the way Nevada County residents view public-access television. The renegotiated agreements could lead to the creation of multiple channels for government, education and public-access programming, allowing increased air time and more outlets for the services provided through Foothills Community Access Television.
The possibility of a different group overseeing all of these changes is real, said Gary Peterson, chair of FCAT’s board of directors, and is a prospect that has a few local producers hoping for better times.
For the last three years, FCAT has received $15,000 from the county. It also receives $5,000 pass-through from the cable provider to run Channel 11, the county’s public-access station.
The nonprofit cable station recently inked a 12-month, $9,600 contract to provide taping for city council and planning commission meetings and selected special meetings.
The renegotiated franchise agreements could net a windfall for public access and commercial cable improvements.
Comcast, whose officials did not return phone calls for comment, could, as part of a capital grant, give the county as much as $500,000 for one-time improvements. “We could spend a third of that right off the bat,” Everett said. “We’re using consumer, home-hobby equipment here. That would be riches compared to what we have now.”
The county, as well as the cities of Grass Valley and Nevada City, are in the process of inking a deal with a high-powered Sacramento consultant to help them renegotiate cable franchise agreements.
The pact with the county expires next year, and Nevada City recently received an extension that will expire when the renegotiations begin. Grass Valley’s franchise agreement doesn’t end until 2008.
Observers say the current deals, signed even before AT&T became the cable provider a few years ago, don’t allow for the flexibility to upgrade the technology and expand the choices available to those wanting to view or use the public-access portion of the agreement.
What will that mean for community-access television?
“It’s very important for Nevada County, because we do so well with the programs we have,” said Susan Rogers, a former member of the FCAT board who has lobbied the city of Grass Valley for more funds to tape and broadcast meetings.
“It represents a valuable resource that could be leveraged if the community had actual working production equipment and long-term, stable financial resources.”
Rogers said the community needs at least a new studio and $500,000 in cash to bring high quality, consistent programming. She’d like to see video feeds available from Grass Valley and Nevada City city halls, the Rood Administrative Center, the Miners Foundry and the two comprehensive high schools.
“That’s not too much to ask,” she said.
In a number of instances in California, the Buske Group of Sacramento has renegotiated contracts for municipalities large and small, generally with vastly improved results.
The community TV group serving the communities of Gilroy, Hollister and San Juan Bautista, with 15,000 subscribers, negotiated an increase with Charter Cable in 2000 from one to seven analog channels, a one-time payment of $700,000 and a rebuild of the cable system.
The cities of Lompoc and Santa Maria, Everett said, recently renegotiated a contract for their 25,000 customers that gives them an $800,000 one-time lump sum for capital improvements and $355,000 every year for the next 12 years.
The city of Monrovia, with 7,000 subscribers, provides 12 hours of community-access programming on a $115,000 budget.
Community Media of the Foothills runs three channels – educational, public access and a government channel and has a staff of eight full- and part-time employees.
The system also receives a $276,000 Department of Labor grant to teach 14- to 21-year-olds video production in a 900-square-foot facility. Shows will soon be produced in a 1,900-square-foot facility, paid for in part by $15,000 raised in a telethon.
Randy Van Dalsen, a principal in the Buske Group, said he hopes to conduct a community assessment of needs survey, including written and telephone responses, to gauge what the community wants.
The end result could include requests for more governmental and educational stations, high-speed cable Internet access, digital recording and editing equipment for the each of those stations and money. Lots of money.
“This could be a revenue stream that can sustain them for the long term,” said Steve Monaghan, Nevada County’s chief information officer, who is leading the county’s efforts to create a three-headed negotiation team with Grass Valley and Nevada City.
Though FCAT provides some of those services now, they could go up for bid once the agreements are renegotiated, though no other group has expressed interest, say those close to FCAT.
Some agree that FCAT may not be equipped to run the public-access portion of the cable agreement once the new agreements are reached.
“The quality is terrible,” said Barry Schoenborn, who has watched FCAT for several years and until recently hosted the “Liberal Lane” talk show on the station.
While some associated with FCAT cry foul over the dearth of money afforded the station, Schoenborn and others fault management of the station for not maximizing its potential and for doing a poor job of fund-raising.
“What I would like to see is a well-managed facility for putting community tapes on the air,” Schoenborn added.
Everett disputes many of Schoenborn’s claims, saying the station averages 27 hours a week – where Everett is a part-time staffer making $1,000 a month. There are over 50 active producers and scores more in video-production classes.
Money woes are not new at FCAT, but with the new terms of a cable franchise agreement, that could be history, at least for a while.
“I wish we could get to the point where we don’t have to piece things together. The new agreement is absolutely essential,” Tomb said
Everett, who has over two decades of experience working with community access television, sounds the voice of the eternal optimist in his wish for the future.
“The job’s not done here,” he said. “Some day, we’ll have the resources to do this.”
Wednesday: What’s on tap for regular cable television?
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