Local public TV debate: to ‘underwrite’ or not? | TheUnion.com

Local public TV debate: to ‘underwrite’ or not?

If someone uses government property for personal gain, you’d have every reason to be upset. You should be, as it’s against the law and it’s morally wrong. Yet that’s what’s happening now when commercial video producers try to make profits from using our public access TV channel.

The situation takes from the public, allowing some to gain from what belongs to everyone. The City of Grass Valley and its contracted vendor (Foothills Community Access Television) could prevent this.

Here’s a rough explanation of how public access TV works:

Comcast Inc. has the exclusive right to provide cable TV to a large portion of Nevada County. In exchange for this, it agrees to provide three noncommercial TV channels for community use. Comcast also pays franchise fees to the County of Nevada and the cities of Grass Valley and Nevada City. You actually pay, as those fees appear as line items on your cable bill.

The City of Grass Valley manages the public, educational, and government channels’ access for the benefit of the public. It has contracted with FCAT to manage the public channel. FCAT doesn’t create programming, and its only significant duty is to rebroadcast videotapes created by the public.

It’s a public forum. You and I are free to make tapes for public broadcast, and they are supposed to be shown. In Sacramento, Seattle and other towns, the only constraint is that you certify that your program is free of obscene speech or commercial speech. We don’t do that here.

That’s the trouble. Every institution, it seems, has abusers, and there are video producers trying to turn the public’s TV channel into a personal profit center. These are people trying to imitate commercial television by soliciting sponsors and promising abundant on-air mentions and multiple replays of the program produced. They may try to deny that it’s happening, or claim that the sponsors are “underwriters,” or that commercials are “free speech.” In my opinion, that’s not true.

Why is this permitted? Grass Valley’s contract with FCAT specifies that it must not permit “commercial use by public access programming producers.” The Federal Communications Commission defines commercials in its Communication Act and public access services in other cities define it in their policies. But common sense is the only law you need: If it’s a commercial, it doesn’t belong on free community access TV.

If FCAT actively solicited public support for itself (like KVMR radio), the public would probably accept underwriting. In fact, FCAT’s contract with the city of Grass Valley requires FCAT to support itself. However, it appears that FCAT relies on government handouts as its major source of funding while turning a blind eye to the problem of programs with commercials. It’s a surprise, actually, that the only ones making any money are the private producers.

Sadly, the commercial programs are lauded as a service to the community, though they are broadcast at taxpayers’ expense. Some producers claim they cannot continue business on a public access channel without the free use of television time.

Are my views based on experience? I think so. I have been involved with public access television and FCAT since 1992. I was on the board of directors and at various times served as president and underwriter coordinator.

At present, I produce an animal shelter program (“For Pets’ Sake”), videotape government meetings, and tape a health issues program for Joan Buffington, broadcast on KVMR. All these programs are broadcast on FCAT. My husband Steve (a technical engineer who has given FCAT hundreds of hours of volunteer technical assistance) is also an active video producer.

I support the notion public access TV is to be a place for noncommercial producers to entertain, inform, serve the community and express opinions. I’m sad that our local channel is approaching this goal so slowly.

So what can be done? The city of Grass Valley, especially City Manager Gene Haroldsen, has put in a lot of effort to investigate this situation. It’s time for the city to act. Enforce the contract with FCAT. “No commercial use.” If FCAT won’t comply, then the city must cancel the contract and find a vendor who will comply.

Pam and Steve Gorman are videographers and live in Alta Sierra.

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