Not Ready for Prime Time

City rejects public access television bid

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Bellingham must wait a little longer to put the “P” in public access television.

Mayor Kelli Linville and her administration recommended Bellingham City Council reject the sole proposal the city received to establish and operate a PEG access cable channel. The channel would employ franchise fees paid by Comcast cable subscribers to provide local content. The public channel would operate in parallel with the Education and Government programming the city already offers through BTV-10.

Long dreamed of by media enthusiasts in Bellingham, a public component would invite creative programming and broaden community dialogue, supporters say. As currently constructed, the EG programming on BTV-10 extends to little beyond the halls of government. Cable subscribers are paying for more—and they deserve more, critics say.

The city requested a round of proposals to establish and operate the channel in September of last year. City officials received one bid from the Center for New Media, a partnership based in Bellingham chartered to research and promote media literacy education through vibrant public programming. The Center requested $1.1 million of city funding over 2-1/2 years, and estimated they would add some in-kind funding in future years of their plan, according to city records. Suzanne Blais, executive director for the Center for New Media, presented the CNM proposal to City Council in December.

“Center for New Media’s goal is to provide an educational program that is intellectually stimulating, emotionally compelling, aesthetically enriching and personally relevant with a strong emphasis on community building and responsible citizenship,” Blais explained in her proposal. “Our fundamental commitment is to provide students with the opportunity to understand what it means to engage actively within a communication form designed to be artistic as well as informational. Examples of this commitment are an ongoing emphasis on live events important to the community, the development of programs to help nonprofits and individuals understand the medium and the tools necessary to be successful in it.”

The Center has trained 300 students and produced about 200 programs. Center for New Media produces Western Window, a program on BTV10, and Whatcom Sports Report, an online video report.

“These channels will provide valuable information and educational services to over 80,000 potential viewers in Northwest Washington,” Dan Etulain agreed. Etulain is president of the Northwest Communications Center, based in Bellingham.

“Bellingham is to be blessed,” he predicted. “Community residents will have opportunity to produce programming of their interest and the interest of viewers. The access channel may provide political forums, parades, festivals, local news, cutting-edge music and much more. Persons to be served will include groups and individuals, youth, seniors, the disabled, labor, faith, culture, ethnic diversity, politics, social justice, the environment, the arts and many other points of view and interests of people who could never gain access to the television media in any other way.”

The mayor convened an independent panel to review the CNM proposal according to weighted criteria. The panel included media managers from Seattle and Kent along with city media staff and the finance director for the Whatcom Transportation Authority. The panel’s comments focused primarily on the business aspects of the CNM proposal.

“I wanted the review to be rigorous, as this amounts to a million dollar contract over several years, paid by taxpayers and cable subscribers,” Linville said. “I also wanted an outside perspective, as this has been an issue that the council has considered for a long time.”

The public channel proposal originally developed by city staff provided an option for an education-only channel, in hopes of attracting a proposal from Western Washington University. But council voted 5-2 to require that any operator of the new channel be required to provide public access, and university officials withdrew out of liability concerns for the content of programming.

Public access provides freedom to organizations, groups, or individual members of the general public, on a non-discriminatory basis, to act as the primary or designated programmers or users, having editorial control over their programming.

Public access has a particular meaning that we’ve struggled with for some time,” Linville admitted. “It really does mean access, it means we don’t get to decide or control who goes on the air with what sorts of programs, and that invites concern about potentially offensive or inappropriate content.” That’s one reason the university declined interest, she said.

Review panelists expressed concerns that CNM did not provide strong enough policies to address that issue. Others concentrated on the business plan, and found financial controls needed strengthening.

“Do not award,” WTA Finance Manager Patricia Dunn wrote on her evaluation. “No evidence of ability to successfully start, implement and manage this business.”

“Their vision of a community PEG channel is based on an old model and does not take advantage of new technologies, which could provide increased access by community users,” Dal Neitzel, program coordinator at BTV 10, commented. “Although their vision of what a PEG channel can bring to this community is plausible, their ability to make that vision a reality is not.

“Since programming is a major objective of a new PEG channel, there should be a strong oversight for programming and the mix of programming types the channel prepares and presents,” Neitzel suggested.

While praising the passion of the Center’s proposal, city staff suggested that City Council members should identify next steps, given their interest in this initiative. Those steps could include issuing a new request for proposals or working with CNM to better shape their proposal. But council should also be cautious and “create a wall of separation from any content decisions,” Tony Perez, director of the Seattle Office of Cable Communications, suggested.

“They seemed to want us to be a full-sized media company that had been doing this on a large scale for years,” Blais commented. “That’s not who we are. We are a small grassroots, community-based group who want to initiate a dialogue about how public access television can best serve Bellingham.”

The quest for a public channel has been a long one in Bellingham, and has only increased since KVOS-TV disposed of their local programming in 2006. Through the KVOS studios, the city had a robust history of public access and programming dating back to the 1970s.

“There were a number of entertainment, how-to and educational shows on PEG at that time, because Channel 10 represented all three aspects of access—Public, Education, and Government,” Blais commented. Her own experience stretches back 24 years, the last 19 as the owner and executive producer at Black Dog Productions, a primary media production service provider to the City of Bellingham, the university and local businesses. Her staff at CNM have extensive media experience reaching as far back as the mid-1980s.

In 1999, cable provider TCI sold their city franchise agreement to AT&T. AT&T decided the company would no longer support public access television in Bellingham, a decision continued when the agreement was immediately flipped to Comcast. Still, cable fees provided the funding mechanism to provide a public access channel.

In a round of requests for proposals several years ago, the city received two. One was elaborate and, staff believed, impractical. The other was considered insufficiently detailed. Council had considered public access services in 2000 and again in 2006 without resolution.

PEG submerged through much of the past administration. City Council as part of its work plan for 2013 again picked up the issue and directed that Comcast franchise funds continue to be set aside to support potential expansion of PEG access television.

“They kept the Government access side of things, and codified it, and wrote their own voice and point of access with the community into the franchise agreement,” Blais admitted, “but they have ignored the Public and Education side of the equation ever since. We have been waiting for 14 years for the time to be right, and for Public and Education access to come back to our community.”

The need for expanded programming is becoming more clear, Linville said. They city has been approached by organizations like the League of Women Voters and City Club, requesting their content be televised. The city is lacking a coherent policy about what programming content to carry, the role an independent contractor would play in executing a PEG agreement.

“I had no history with this,” Linville admitted, “but I am willing to follow up and facilitate a discussion to see if it is feasible.”

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