Station break

Public access television funding shortfalls persist despite $3.5 million windfall

Donna Wellborn and the crew of Metro Cable sets up for Citrus Heights City Council meeting.

Donna Wellborn and the crew of Metro Cable sets up for Citrus Heights City Council meeting.

Photo By Jill Wagner

How many producers can you cram into one editing booth? It sounds like the start of a bad film school joke, but television producers were forced to take the question seriously last year when one of Channel 73/74’s three editing booths suddenly went kaput.

Ken Adams, longtime producer of the station’s Soapbox program, recalls the general havoc at the station as people worked double-time and round-the-clock under the editing time and space crunch.

In his seventh year of involvement with Access Sacramento, the city’s public “free speech and community interest” station, Adams is no longer phased by what sometimes feels like regularly scheduled equipment crises.

Adams says chronic underfunding debilitates Access’ mission of providing technological resources and training for the public. He and others say the resources that should be going to help the public gain access to the airwaves is instead being diverted to pet political projects.

Right now, all the evening studio time is maxed out. Adams points out that no vacant studio time translates into no new shows. No new shows mean fewer new ideas flowing into the public consciousness.

Porch steps
Access Sacramento provides a forum for alternative views and voices typically ignored by the mainstream media, according to executive director Ron Cooper, whereas commercial broadcasters are fixated on hooking the largest possible audience.

“The question we ask is: What about minority audiences? … racial minorities, sexual preference minorities, political minorities, religious minorities, outspoken critics, etcetera,” Cooper said. “By definition, these groups will never be represented on commercial media except as occasional oddities.”

According to Adams, Access talks about what’s going on in the community from the common folk’s points of view.

“In the old days, you would learn community from your porch steps. But today, our culture comes from TV. Issues aren’t important to people unless they hear about them on TV. At Access, we’ve reintroduced the porch steps onto TV, where people from all backgrounds and lifestyles can talk about what’s affecting them,” Adams said.

Access and three other public cable stations—MetroCable 14, Sacramento Educational Cable Consortium (Channels 71/72), and KVIE (PBS Channel 7)—look to the Sacramento Metropolitan Cable Commission for funding. The commission, comprised of 10 elected officials from the county and its cities, decides how to spend the $7.5 million in franchise fees that AT&T will give back to the county this year.

During the Feb. 1 Cable Commission meeting, the four public cable stations were relieved to hear consultant Sue Disciple, who was hired by the commission to assess local public access, reinforce what they’ve suspected all along: Public access television is underfunded in Sacramento County.Maintaining access
Disciple measured Sacramento’s cable commission against 40 other regions, concluding that Sacramento public cable is severely underfunded. The national average allotted to public television per subscriber is 75 cents per month, compared to 45 cents in Sacramento County.

Yet Disciple’s national survey also showed that Sacramento’s public cable stations are pumping out a maximum amount of programming despite their meager budgets. Sacramento’s stations have continually produced an exceptional quantity of programming, but to make needed improvements, stations need high-quality new equipment.

Right now, Access has just one technician on-hand to repair already run-down equipment. Much of the equipment was not quality to begin with, so it is not surprising that it tends to get broken out in the field.

Despite financial strains, Cooper says Access has never strayed from its commitment to provide the public with access to the airwaves: “If you or your group think you have an important message, we are here to help you. You don’t have to justify ‘audience size’ or ‘the size of your budget’ to gain access to television as a vehicle for your message.”

Adams took advantage of that promise when he co-founded Soapbox, a progressive-minded show discussing community issues and events with local people. Two years ago, Soapbox began exploring the problems with electrical deregulation, forecasting our current energy quagmire. In the near future, Soapbox will explore the dilemmas of global warming and water politics as they affect Sacramento.

“We can talk more openly and frankly about such issues on Access because, unlike the commercial media, we don’t have to worry about offending any advertisers,” Adams said. “We have no commercials.”

As an official spokesman of the local Green Party, Adams’ disdain for commercial media coincides with Ralph Nader’s message to resist the over-homogenization of the media.

“Media concentration is a cornerstone of the commercialization of culture and the erosion of civic democracy,” Nader wrote in a policy paper last October.

Follow the money
The commitment of resources to public access television is easier said than done, a process guided by politics more than altruism. Nobody from the public cable stations or even from the television production profession holds a spot on the commission.

The money that goes to the Cable Commission comes from cable subscriber fees that the cable provider, now AT&T, returns to the city in exchange for using the public-right-of-way. Even though the franchise fee is taken strictly from cable subscribers, most of it is not allocated back to cable-related services.

Any money not granted to public cable is swept into the general fund as unrestricted revenue, meaning the commissioners can spend this money on whatever pet projects they want, even if these projects only cater to a small niche of their constituents.

Paul Hahn, executive director of the Cable Commission, describes the dynamics of spending within the commission: “The money that doesn’t go to the Grantees (the public cable TV stations) goes back to the city and the county to utilize as those boards see fit. All the elected officials on the commission know in the back of their minds that an increase to the Grantees is taking money away from their other hats—from other commissions and boards they’re on.”

Despite the history of stagnated funding from the commission, the public cable stations have reason to believe this year might be different. They’re crossing their fingers in the hope that the commissioners will share a portion of the extra $3.5 million they will be receiving from AT&T’s new contract with Sacramento County. The new contract allocates 5 percent of all cable subscriber fees back to the county, up from Comcast’s former 2.65 percent arrangement.

For the past six years, the four stations have been given the same $1.3 million to divvy up out of the $4 million total collected by the commission. This year, the commission expects to rake in $7.5 million in franchise fees from AT&T.

Hahn said he supports competition for scarce government resources as a healthy process that promotes excellence and accountability, just as it does in the free market. Yet the stations in Sacramento County appear to be less free market entrepreneurs than people begging for money.

Hat in hand
Most cable commissions cultivate a partnership with their public stations, according to Disciple, whereas she described the Sacramento Cable Commission’s relationship with their public cable stations as “parental.” The commissioners are the frugal parents to the stations’ allowance-hungry kids.

Disciple gave examples of how her hometown of Portland runs cable very differently. The city reserves a set amount of funding for public cable services. The key difference from Sacramento is Portland’s cable TV stations can spend time and energy resolving community concerns with their commission because they have done away with the tug-of-war over funding.

Given Sacramento’s system, Liz Rhodes of the Sacramento Educational Cable Consortium Channels 71/72 has realized that public cable stations have to communicate their needs and trouble spots better.

“We’ve always told the commission about our fantastic work, and haven’t talked about the areas that need improvement,” Rhodes said. “Perhaps that’s why they see no need for a budget increase.”

Rhodes said there is a huge hole in educational cable in terms of broadcasting the voice of the youth community. Socially, she sees a crucial need for a forum where young people can express their ideas to the larger community.

“It would be wonderful if we had the resources to teach kids how to use the technology to produce their own shows,” she said. “Here in Sacramento, we have a forum in which to place that [public cable] where they will be heard by 240,000 households and 400 schools.”

Last year, the Folsom Cordova School District knocked on SECC’s door asking for help with Center High School’s newly built television studio. With the facility up and ready, they only needed equipment to get their shows rolling. They asked the SECC for $80,000 to buy equipment, but the SECC didn’t have the money, so the TV studio is still dormant.

Rhodes believes that with more funding, SECC could play a more pivotal role in addressing the educational community’s technological needs.

Hahn said the commission’s reluctance to increase funding for the public cable stations stems from a lack of “adequate criteria” with which to evaluate them, a notion scoffed at by Rhodes. She notes that stations supply the commission with program plans, end-of-year reports, management descriptions and audits—more than enough to evaluate performance.

The missing link is not a lack of information from the stations, Rhodes said, but a commitment to public programming within Sacramento County. While the commission considers spending $50,000 per station for a “community needs assessment” study, public access advocates say they just need recognition and more funding.

“We are national leaders and models in what we do,” Cooper said, “but as is so often the case, we’re recognized by everybody else in the world before we’re acknowledged by our own government, and that’s a struggle.