FCAT, jinxed at birth, faces uncertain future
Can FCAT be saved? I don’t know. Speaking as one of three recently resigned directors of Foothills Community Access Television, here’s my personal opinion on why this group seems jinxed as the local provider of CAT (community access television).
What’s the difference between CAT and FCAT? The latter is the non-profit corporation that runs the local community access cable channel. The other, community access television, is the process by which citizens can participate in the life of their community by making and airing television shows on local cable.
That process can’t happen by itself – some organization has to run the television station. In 1994, one year after signing a cable agreement with TCI, the city of Grass Valley contracted with a new non-profit membership corporation, Foothills Community Access Television. FCAT was to provide community access – for public and government programming – to TCI’s (now AT&T’s) channel 11. (Public is the “P” and government is the “G” in what’s referred to as PEG access. The “E,” educational access, is managed by Sierra College on channel 22.)
All parties to this “birth” of FCAT were certainly well-meaning. But they didn’t realize that their vision and hopes for community television were based on a flawed business model: the expectation that community members, or perhaps the group itself, would somehow provide what the cable company or the government usually provides to PEG stations: money sufficient to operate in a professional, business-like manner.
To my knowledge, there is no established PEG access station in the U.S. that gets even 20% of its basic operating funds from memberships, grants, fund-raising or private donations. Stations are usually funded at the time the government agency signs the contract with the cable company. But in Grass Valley’s case, that contract was signed a year before FCAT was formed.
The city did arrange for AT&T to provide $25,000 in start-up equipment, and $5,000 per year for 14 years. But technology changes rapidly, and industrial-grade video production equipment is expensive. For the first five years of its existence, the $5,000 was FCAT’s only guaranteed income, and inflation has made that figure a joke. The county started chipping in $15,000 per year in 1999. FCAT salaries alone exceed $20,000 for two part-timers.
FCAT’s other “birth defect,” in my opinion, is that it was constituted as a membership corporation. Members vote to elect directors to the Board, and also vote on changes to the corporate by-laws.
According to The Nonprofit Handbook by Gary Grobman, membership corporations – one of three classes of non-profits – “exist principally to provide services for their members.”
At the time FCAT was formed, this probably sounded like a good idea to its founders. But with the benefit of hindsight, I suggest a non-profit that wants to run a CAT station should be a different corporate class of non-profit: a service agency, which according to Grobman, “exists to provide specific services to the public.”
After all, what is the purpose community access television? It’s to provide, as FCAT Executive Director Miles Everett would say, “a dedicated electronic forum for free speech.” CAT is the modern-day version of the town square where all local citizens (not just members) can speak, via their own video soapboxes.
To me, that means our community access television station should serve the public, not the members of FCAT.
Without the funding typically provided to a PEG access station, and with a corporate mission giving FCAT members a virtual green light to implement their personal agendas, the organization was doomed from the beginning. Nature abhors a vacuum (including a leadership vacuum). Capable people occasionally stepped in to keep the place afloat, but FCAT has more frequently been used for the convenience of a few producers. Other members feel such ownership that even when fully qualified directors are elected, they can’t let go, bullying the Board with complaints and newspaper columns about how their expectations aren’t being met.
Grass Valley Mayor Linda Stevens once compared FCAT’s problems to “kids fighting in the sandbox.” What else can the community expect, when there’s no money to pay a sandbox supervisor to set ground rules and enforce them fairly?
Some FCAT members will surely – and loudly – object to the notion of a non-membership PEG access corporation. They will write, speak and lobby persuasively about imagined threats to the “rights” of community producers to participate in the organization.
Again, who is the organization supposed to serve – the public or the members? There are lots of ways to participate in PEG access other than voting. In a perpetual scramble for financial survival, Board members can do their jobs better when they’re not being hounded by members telling them how to run the shop.
So, I think CAT can be saved, but not FCAT. No matter who runs PEG access, they’ll need some financial help for the next 21 months, after which funding from the county’s contract re-negotiation with AT&T should kick in.
Regarding the type of corporation, members don’t have the last word. A government entity decides who runs a local PEG station. Right now, Grass Valley has the contract. Might they be willing to let Nevada County pick up that responsibility?
County supervisors and staff have a clear, positive understanding of the benefits and possibilities of PEG access. Since they will lead the AT&T re-negotiation, it makes sense to get PEG under their umbrella. Sooner, rather than later, may be a win-win for everyone.
Susan Rogers is a writer, communications consultant and media literacy educator in Grass Valley. She can be reached at
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