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Cable Access Channel Offers Public Benefits

By Nelson Sigelman

For people familiar with public access television, the potential future benefits of a Martha's Vineyard public access television corporation are as rich and varied as the community.
On any given day television viewers might find a cooking class, a show devoted to some aspect of Vineyard arts, a tour of a particular Island conservation property, or programming aimed at senior viewers, even live televised town and regional meetings.
On Friday, Dec. 15, at 7 pm, in the Oak Bluffs School community room, Nancy Richard, executive director of Plymouth Area Community Television (PACTV) will describe the successful effort to create a nonprofit public access corporation that serves the two South Shore towns of Kingston and Plymouth.
The presentation is sponsored by the Martha's Vineyard cable access board (CAB) and The Martha's Vineyard Times.
John Alley, CAB chairman, said he is enthusiastic about Ms. Richard's visit. He said the PACTV experience shows what can be done when there is the interest.
"I hope it will spur interest among those folks who are interested in PEG (public, educational, and government) access, said Mr. Alley. "It has enormous potential for the Vineyard."
Mr. Alley said that following the discussion people would be invited to participate in a planning effort to create a Martha's Vineyard public access television corporation once contract negotiations are completed.
For now, Island cable television subscribers who tune into cable channel 8, the Vineyard's only public access channel, will find an unrelenting parade of paid classified advertising interspersed with occasional local shows, mostly sports, produced under less than favorable conditions.
Under the terms of a new cable franchise agreement currently being negotiated with Adelphia Communications, the Island's current cable television provider, that could change.
The Island's cable advisory board, made up of one appointed member from each of the six towns, has been responsible for negotiating a new contract. A key focus of those talks has been the establishment of a public access television corporation similar to successful models across the state that would be funded based on 5 percent of the company's gross annual revenues.
Mr. Alley, West Tisbury selectman and newly elected Dukes County commissioner, said PEG access "will likely end up being the centerpiece of the contract."

PACTV Offers a Model

This week Ms. Richard said she looks forward to describing how Plymouth and Kingston created a public access television corporation, built and equipped a studio, and created a variety of community programming.
Ms. Richard said that when companies like Adelphia are responsible for providing public access, for the most part it receives short shrift because it is not the main focus. She said in the case of PACTV, "community access is our primary job, this is what we do, and it is incumbent upon us to do a good job."
Ms. Richard said selectmen's meetings in both towns are broadcast live, as are other local meetings. Town meetings also receive live coverage.
In an example of locally produced programming that serves the public interest, every other week the town moderator produces a show that focuses on the inside working of town government. Ms. Richard said shows that review important issues help inform the electorate.
Ms. Richard said nonprofit groups do a great deal to promote their respective charities. They include the Rotary Club, which produces an annual televised auction fundraiser, and the Chamber of Commerce.
She estimated that approximately 70 percent of the programs are locally produced. Subjects include cooking, sports, religion, and senior issues. She said PACTV concentrates its energies on government access, public access, and member training.
She said PACTV receives 3 percent of Adelphia's gross revenues and has an operating budget of approximately $350,000. There are four full-time and two part-time staff members.
Members pay an annual membership fee of $20 and receive free training and access to studio equipment and facilities. There are approximately 275 members of the corporation.
She said it is important for communities contemplating public access to understand the possibilities. Oftentimes, she said, they do not realize "there is more out there and they can do better."
She said it helps to have knowledgeable people who know what to ask for and how to get it. "You can get more from Adelphia if you know to ask for it," she said.
But she said another critical factor in creating a successful public access corporation, particularly in the early stages, is a core group of volunteers really interested in making it happen. PACTV is guided by a nine-member board of directors appointed and elected from the membership.
Ms. Richard says the hardest part is getting the corporation off the ground and running. After that there is considerable momentum.
She said the executive director needs to be someone who has a lot of energy and understands public access but also knows how to run a business.
"You have to get the corporation off on solid ground," she said. "It's a process, and in our case it took two years."
She added, "We try to demystify the process of making TV. Once you do that it changes the whole way people view television."

Other Towns Offer Models

Ms. Richard's visit was arranged by Lauren Horton of Oak Bluffs, a volunteer with a keen interest in the work of the advisory board largely because of her previous experience with cable television and PEG access in Bidford, N.H.
Ms. Horton, who started Bidford's cable access station, said community television has the potential to bring people together and provide information about important local issues on the Vineyard. The catalyst in Bidford, she said, was local politics.
Ms. Horton envisions a Vineyard station where, on any given night, people will be able to watch a local meeting or tune into a program of local interest.
Ms. Horton said there is a wealth of local talent and creativity on the Vineyard that can be tapped for a public access channel. She said, "The more people involved the better it gets."
She said she hopes next week's meeting will be the start of bringing a core group of people together who can begin to move forward in a positive direction.
Other examples of successful public access corporations include Falmouth, where Adelphia provides funding for the Falmouth Community Television corporation (www.fctv.org.). The independent, nonprofit channel provides individuals and community groups with training in the use of broadcast equipment, and it broadcasts a rich menu of local shows.
On one show, "Audible Local Ledger," viewers with difficulty reading can tune in and listen as someone reads the town newspaper. Another program, "Give Us Shelter," produced by the Mashpee Animal Shelter, showcases pets for adoption.
There is also a live broadcast of the weekly Falmouth selectmen's meeting and taped broadcasts of Cape Cod Commission meetings and school committee meetings.
This fall in the Cape town of Sandwich, a group of residents set up Sandwich Area Community Access Television Inc. (SACAT), a nonprofit corporation, to take over the operation of the public access channel from Adelphia. Town selectmen have given their approval, clearing the way for approximately $250,000 in funding for the nonprofit from Adelphia.

Cable Contract Progress

It has been more than two months since a six-month contract extension with Adelphia expired, and more than one year since the CAB held its first and last public meeting to discuss cable-related issues or PEG access at a license renewal hearing held last December. The cable giant had been operating under the terms of a six-month contract extension granted by each town when the previous 15-year contract expired in April. The contract extension expired on Oct. 1 and the Island towns agreed to a four-month extension.
The negotiating effort got off to a late start last fall and continued in fits and starts throughout the spring and summer.
Friday's presentation by Ms. Richard is the CAB's first attempt since last January to bring together Islanders who might be interested in PEG access or be able to contribute their expertise. Mr. Alley said he hopes Friday's meeting will lead to further public discussion about what the framework of a public access corporation designed to meet the needs of the Vineyard community might be.
Asked about the current state of negotiations, Mr. Alley said there is progress on some of the substantial issues.
"We're getting close," he said.
At the moment, the contract negotiations are in the hands of CAB attorney Peter Epstein.
Mr. Epstein has advised numerous towns, including Falmouth, in their contract negotiations with cable providers.
Mr. Alley said Mr. Epstein is in the process of "whittling down the areas of disagreement. When he feels it is about together then the board will meet to go over it."
He said school officials have agreed in principal to have the PEG access studio located at the regional high school. That would allow both students and the public to take advantage of the facility.
In a two-page letter to Island selectmen dated Oct. 10, Mr. Epstein reported on the status of outstanding cable contract issues.
Mr. Epstein outlined the nine major contract points of discussion and agreement. They included an agreement from Adelphia to provide PEG funding, but the company insisted it would be free to pass those costs along to subscribers.
The actual ability of communities to regulate what services cable companies must provide and at what cost is limited. The CAB has no authority over cable rates or programming.
Adelphia also agreed to make three channels, including Channel 8, available for PEG access and to provide "origination" points in each town.
Mr. Alley said the origination points would essentially be socket connections in selected town buildings, all of the schools, and regional meeting halls such as the Old Whaling Church in Edgartown and the Grange Hall in West Tisbury. He said that would allow the broadcast of live programming such as town meetings.

 

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