In his final month in office Mayor Correia signed a 10 year contract with Comcast. Amongst the highlights is the doubling of the franchise fee which is projected to generate over $800,000 a year. This will more than double the amount of money available for PEG (Public, Education, and Government) media access.
Sounds good right? Well, not so fast. Clearly the doubling of the franchise fee is going to mean an increase in your cable bill. In fact if you have a comcast box in your house part of your bill has always funded PEG media access.
How is this money being spent?
My understanding is that the FREDTV ( the school department) has been getting the vast majority, (somewhere between $300,000-$400,000) of the money paid to the city by Comcast for PEG funding. (Let's not forget this is really money being billed to you!) How is that money used? Well part of it goes into the programming you see when you flip on channel 17. Gee it hardly seems money well spent. Don't get me wrong I think it's great to see the a school play, or a band but most of the time when I turn on the channel I see annoying slide shows of all the schools or generic announcements. Obviously some of this money is used behind the scenes as part of an education program but where are the results?
Oh, someone will be quick to point out that the FREDTV (the school department) also runs the Government Channel! Well, that is pretty low overhead. It too is run out of Durfee High and so utilizes pretty much all the same equipment etc. but also the Government Channel has been up and running for less than a year.
The public channel is run by Fall River Community Television up at BCC. This is the channel that is supposed to be available to everyone in the community. Want to do a show on collecting bottle caps? Well you can! Do you want to film various sites around the city? Your grandmother's birthday celebration? A jug band? This is the place. It's really kind of a cool concept. In a way it is much like blogging ANYONE can start a blog as long as they have something they want to share and with a little training and few rules anyone can have a public access show. All it takes is some hard work and dedication. Now my understanding is that the most impressive of our 3 channels (in my humble opinion) runs their operation on a shoestring budget of around $75,000. I think that's a pretty good return on our investment.
So here's the amazing thing, with PEG funding about to double FREDTV (the school department) is trying to make the case that they should keep pretty much all that money for themselves! Gee, that seems a little greedy! Does the FREDTV (the school department) really need $800,000 to run 2 channels? I have a few problems with this:
1. I'm not sure we're getting very much for our $300,00-$400,000 investment handing over more money NEVER seems to be a good idea in such situations.
2. I have serious concerns about the GOVERNMENT CHANNEL being run by the school department, which is gee, PART OF LOCAL GOVERNMENT
3. I think it is a major disservice to not fund the channel that is meant to be available to the community at a level comparable to the other two.
But here's the thing, this is MY TV (and if you're a Comcast customer yours too!) and I think I should get a say in how this money is spent and what I expect to see in return.
Other communities have non-profit organizations that oversee how PEG media access is handled. It's something we should be considering here in Fall River. A board that could help determine the funding for each channel and the goals and then make sure that those things are being achieved.
Even without a non-profit board providing oversight we need to figure out who is getting what and who is running what. It is pretty silly to have the public access channel run on the crumbs tossed aside while FREDTV has enjoyed the bulk of our PEG funding. Now with MORE money coming in we really need to equalize that. After all these channels are supposed to be for the benefit of the community at large. I think I would just start by splitting the funding 3 ways, a third for each channel and then tweak and adjust based on which channel might need more and which can make do with less. I would also seek proposals from FRCTV on how they would operate the Government Channel.
Why shouldn't Government run the Government Channel? Just on the surface the idea seems like a conflict of interest. Can you imagine if the Mayor announced the city was buying the Herald News?! Gee would you trust the coverage? The same principle applies. On top of that I've already heard that meetings had to be adjourned because the students had to go home! How do you handle special meetings held on weekends or during school hours? It seems like a huge mess. Don't get me wrong I think student involvement is a great thing, but let FREDTV form a partnership with whoever runs G-TV so that kids can be involved and the essential mission (which should really be to cover all meetings and government events) can still be carried out.
Now speaking of 'the essential mission' the public access channel needs more funding to carry out its core mission. More funding would allow FRCTV to do MORE outreach and this is the PUBLIC channel the one available for the citizens to use. It would allow for possibly more equipment to be purchased to expand their abilities, heck it might even allow FRCTV to move away from BCC and possibly run out of a dedicated space with multiple studios and allow for even greater outreach and accessibility. OK, that is some pretty lofty goals but certainly with such a modest budget more funding could really make a big impact at FRCTV.
In a nutshell the Government Channel should be separate from government and cover all meetings and government events. The Public Channel should have more resources which will allow it to be more accessible and do more outreach. What about the Education Channel?
Well first off before we consider giving them more money I think we need to figure out how they've been spending the money they currently get. Obviously not every dollar is showing up on our TV screens, part of that money is in the classroom. However, I would think what we DO see on the screen should be an indicator of what is going on in the classroom, I'm not sure that's the case.
Part of the money the city will be getting under this contract is funding for equipment and facilities. I think we need really think about improving our PEG access infrastructure as well as expanding on what that infrastructure should be. What do I mean? Well for starters I think we need to invest on better facilities and determine where those facilities should be. For instance nothing annoys me more than watching a school committee meeting where I can't hear half the conversation. In the past I have been an advocate for roaming school committee meetings that visit each school, but now I'm thinking they should be held in one location and that location set up to ensure good video and audio recording. In fact I'm beginning to think it makes sense to have these meetings in the City Council chambers and maybe other meetings as well. I think the Fall River room on the 6th floor of Government Center gets used for many functions and press conferences and should be set up in much the same way and perhaps the Nagle Auditorium at Durfee.
Lastly I think we need to make the bulk of this programming available to the community as a whole. Unfortunately there is no mechanism in place to make satellite dish networks or other competitors carry the PEG media access channels, and in fact cable and telephone companies have lobbied the Federal government to reduce or end PEG television. Still I think it is important that everyone in the community have access to programming these channels provide. Many other communities have embraced new and emerging technologies utilizing the internet. This is a direction we need to move toward to make sure that we always have a community outlet for free speech, open government, and the 4th grade spelling bee.