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Wednesday, March 31,2010

Cable Crisis?

What happened to Lansing's public access, and what's being done about it.

by Neal McNamara
Gary Andrews touts that it was he, working as an independent local cable access producer, who got exclusive footage of visits to Michigan by John Sinclair.

Sinclair is a famed counterculture activist who, among other things, has been a poet, marijuana legalization activist, manager of the band MC5, underground newspaper publisher and founder of the White Panther Party, which sought to help the Black Panther Party.


Oh, and one time a guy named John Lennon recorded a song called, “John Sinclair.”


Andrews got into cable access production as “a therapy thing.” He ended up producing around 50 shows for local cable access, from coverage of a neo-Nazi rally in downtown Lansing, to a show about the Dark Knight called “Batman the Graphic Novel in Film and TV.”


“The opportunity that public access TV presents is creative, technical and is a learning and social experience that is important,” Andrews says. “People can gain skill and make decisions as to what they want to do, especially young people. For older people, it gives them the opportunity to say things before they’re gone.”


But, Andrews’ life as a local cable access producer has been all but put on hold over the last few years. In 2007, Comcast removed a cable access studio it ran on Miller Road. Right now, if you managed to produce a show to air on Lansing’s public access channel 16, you would have to send it to Comcast’s office in Southfield and pray for the cable company to put it on TV. Since the closure, city officials have promised that the facility would be replaced and that cable access would return.


During a few checks in recent weeks, channel 16 has been nothing but a scroll of listings for events at Michigan State University.


Though public access in Lansing has been stymied since the closure of Comcast’s facilities, the administration of Virg Bernero with the introduction of this year’s budget is rolling out a new program that it touts will get channel 16 up and running. The new initiative will use money paid to the city by cable providers — and the city has saved up a lot of that money.


Even if you don’t care for local cable access, if you subscribe to cable, you’re paying for it. Every cable subscriber in Lansing who gets Comcast, AT&T’s U-Verse, or the few who get cable through Arialink, is paying cable bills that include a charge for local cable access. (Arialink is not a cable provider, though it does have a program in place at the Arbaugh Building and the MotorWheel lofts providing cable through the Dish Network.) Each of these companies gives the city of Lansing 5 percent of gross revenues in what are called franchise fees for use of the public right of way. They also pay 2 percent in restricted PEG fees — an acronym that stands for public, education and government, the three genres of cable access. Franchise fees can be used for virtually any city operation from paying police, to buying copy paper. But PEG fees are restricted to costs related to cable access infrastructure.


Randy Hannan, Bernero’s spokesman, said that the city has close to $2 million PEG fees for cable access, which has accumulated over the years. Aside from that, the city expects to rake in $1.4 million in franchise fees in this fiscal year.


The reason the city has saved up the PEG fees, Hannan said, is the money is restricted to capital expenditures only — you can’t pay a salary using PEG fees. Over the last several years, only around $100,000 in PEG fees have been used to upgrade the city’s government access studios at City Hall.


Since franchise fees are deposited into the city’s general fund, it is hard to track where the money is spent. If City TV were funded entirely out of franchise fees (it has a budget of just over $200,000) there would still be $1.2 million left, according to this year’s budget.


Other regions in Michigan use a combination of PEG and franchise fees to fund cable access facilities where residents can go, check out a camera, produce a show and watch it air on local cable television. The reason Lansing does not do this, Hannan said, is the franchise fees have historically gone into the general fund and never been marked specifically to support public access television.


If you live in Lansing, you’re probably familiar with channel 12, City TV, which is the “g” in PEG. City TV brings you live City Council meetings every Monday, and other programs produced by the city. Farther up the dial, the Lansing School District, Lansing Community College and Michigan State University rule channels 15, 18, 20 and 21 — those are the E. The P in PEG is channel 16. AT&T customers, however, do not get any of these channels: the U-Verse cable system provides PEG through an Internet protocol address located on one channel. A user has to scroll through a menu of PEG channels, which looks like YouTube. Lansing, as well as many other municipalities, are asking the FCC to force AT&T to provide PEG like Comcast does — though the city still collects PEG and franchise fees from the company.


Aside from Lansing’s public access channel being moribund, there is no regional network connecting PEG channels in the Lansing region. Lansing Comcast subscribers can’t see East Lansing PEG, and Comcast subscribers in Holt can’t see Lansing PEG, and around and around the region.


In other communities, the channel lineup is different, but PEG is still there. Meridian Township has its HOM (Haslett, Okemos, Meridian) TV, a nationally recognized government channel. East Lansing — appropriately — has seven educational access channels (two of which are a combination of government and education) and one channel for G, and one for P.


Coaxial cable


Two Tuesdays ago in a small meeting room on the top floor of the Foster Community Center on Lansing’s east side, Hannan unveiled a plan for public access to the Cable Advisory Board.


Present were Matt Penniman, the board’s acting chairman, members Jim Fordyce and Dave Keeney and City TV director Dominic Cochran. To call it a meeting is technically incorrect because there was no quorum, a problem that has plagued the board for months. Penniman said that the board has not met in full since at least October.


But, in the local world of local cable access, Hannan’s announcement was a bombshell; it was the first real plan put forth by the city to get local public access up and running again since Comcast removed its studio.


First, Hannan said, the city would roll City TV into what’s being called the Office of Community Media — a pseudo-department under the guise of the mayor’s office that would put public and government access under one roof.


“For the sake of efficiency and synergy,” Hannan said.


Second, Hannan told the board members that the city would make available from PEG funds $250,000 in grants each year to fund local producers in creating local programming. He told the board that they would be in charge of creating the criteria for the grant program. They would be in charge of recommending grant recipients, which would be passed on to the mayor’s office for review, and finally would go to the City Council for final approval. The trick with the grants, as with PEG funding, is that the money cannot be spent on personnel.


Third, Hannan said, the city is exploring the possibility of creating a physical location for the Office of Community Media at I-tec (Information Technology Empowerment Center), a nonprofit based at the old Holmes Street School that teaches technology to K-12 students. The idea, Hannan said, would be to create a facility for production of cable access. Hannan said some legal issues still needed to be worked out with I-tec before anything could happen.


But Hannan said that the $2 million in PEG fees sitting in city coffers would be more than enough to get a studio up and running.


Kirk Riley, I-tec’s director, said that the legal issues would revolve around a lease for space at I-tec, whether it would be a lease between the city and Spartan Internet, which owns the building, or if it will be managed by I-tec through a lease with Spartan Internet.


Hannan described a phased approach to community media. Phase 1 would be to create a grant program to determine how much local interest there is in production. He said there could be arts programs coming out of Old Town and community programming out of the South Side Community Center.


“Our vision of community media — in phase 1 — is very decentralized,” Hannan said. “We want it to exist in many different places.”


Behind the decentralization idea, Hannan said that it’s a “possibility” that the city could fund video production repositories around the city.


Phase II, Hannan said, would be to start engaging surrounding governments in a regional partnership in community media so that everyone is connected in PEG. But Hannan said a caveat would be that every one would have to
participate, and that the administration is “not willing to put all of
Lansing’s resources on the table” unless other governments do, too.


“Phase II is to engage in the broader community media conversation,” Hannan said. “But it’s a two-way street.”


But
the proposal comes with caveats and questions. First, since the plan is
part of the mayor’s budget, it is subject to City Council approval
(though the mayor is set to issue an executive order regarding the
folding of City TV into the Office of Community Media and putting it
under the control of the mayor’s office. Right now, City TV is under
the control of the City Council). There are also a number of questions
about the proposal: How soon could the public submit programming to the
Office of Community Media instead of shipping it to Southfield? Will
there be new staff added for the additional duties of managing public
access television? What are the steps to get a production studio
running at I-tec? If a citizen gets a grant to buy equipment, will the
city own it?


Penniman
said that the slow movement of getting cable access up and running in
Lansing has frustrated him. He’s encouraged by the newest proposal.
Still, the larger issue of regionalizing cable access remains in the
balance.


“The
mayor’s program has a potential to do a lot of good,” Penniman said. “I
would like Lansing to move more quickly than they’re planning on with a
regional effort. I understand that these things do take time.”


Community, Thursdays at 8 p.m.


In
the bottom floor of an art deco office building in downtown Battle
Creek, Dale Geminder is the happy boss of five full-time staff members
plus a part-timer, a brandnew, fully functioning public access studio,
and two public access channels: a P and a G. Geminder is executive
director of Access Vision, which serves five communities in the Battle
Creek area — Emmet Township, Penfield Township, Newton Township and the
cities of Springfield and Battle Creek. Just in January, it moved out
of its old facilities across the street and into a new space.


The
public channel hosts programs that range from an edgy hip-hop show
called “The Cypher” to “The Pet Show,” which features animals available
for adoption from the local shelter. The studio is a veritable library
of video production equipment; there’s a repository of mini digital
video cameras, portable editing stations, tripods, microphones and
tapes; a series of editing rooms with Final Cut Pro and iMovie; a huge
broadcast studio that looks as good as anything you would see on your
local news; and there’s even a conference room, kitchen and lobby area
for guests on shows that use the studio.


Franchise
fees fund 80 percent of the operation. Geminder said his budget for the
upcoming year is $428,000 (for local context, that’s about $200,000
less than it costs Lansing to operate its City Council). Each of the
five municipalities involved in Access Vision give 3 percent of the 5
percent in franchise fees they collect. For extra funds, Access Vision
does video production for local nonprofits, gets sponsorships for the
high school sporting events it covers and charges fees for dubbing and
classes on video production.


Access
Vision got its start in 1987 when a board was created to determine the
best way to create a regional community access center. The board
traveled around to different access centers across the state searching
for a model that would fit the Battle Creek region.


“We
kept coming back to the best way to do it is to create a nonprofit, and
have all the franchise fees go to it rather than it be portioned out
for government, education and public access,” Geminder said. “In my
opinion, that’s why we’ve been so successful.”


In
1988, an executive director was hired, in 1989 the teaching of video
production classes began, and in September of that year, Access Vision
went on the air.


On
a recent Friday morning, the Access Vision studios were quiet, but the
buzz of cable access activity was still there. Craig Buchanan and Ryan
Payne were in a production room hunched over a computer editing a
sermon from their church, New Harvest Christian. Inside the equipment
room, a young man came in and checked out a portable editing station —
Geminder noted that only advanced users of Access Vision are allowed to
take out the higher-tech equipment — and production manager Greg Mason
had arrived at work dressed down in preparation for a high school sporting event he was scheduled to shoot later in the day.


Geminder,
seated in his office just on the other side of a wall covered in
awards, seemed to relish all things public access. Access Vision
reaches an audience of about 22,000, and he puts its value at around
$3.5 million


“You can’t put a value on informative programming that is
for the community, and produced by the community,” he said.


Just
down the road from Access Vision is the Public Media Network. Like
Access Vision, Public Media Network is a community media center funded
by franchise fees from Oshtemo, Kalamazoo and Comstock townships and
the cities of Kalamazoo and Parchment. A deal to include the city of
Portage is in its final stages.


Hap
Haasch is the center’s director. He’s a veteran of Michigan cable
access, starting off his career in the 1980s at Lansing’s City TV. He
went on to lead Ann Arbor’s Community Television Network, which is
operated by the city government, unlike Access Vision and the Public
Media Network.


The
network operates one government channel, one education channel, two
public access channels, and a third channel that’s a hybrid of
government and public access. Public
Media Network also operates a local radio station, all out of a
5,600-square-foot facility in a building in downtown Kalamazoo that
also houses local arts groups. The municipalities served by the network
each give 40 percent of their franchise fees for its operation. With a
staff of six full-timers and two part-timers, the network operates on a
budget of $630,000. About $460,000 of that is from franchise fees, the rest from grants and other charges.


Over
his years in community access, Haasch has realized that the least
desirable model for a public access center is one run by a cable
provider. It’s a view backed up by the Alliance for Community Media, a
national cable access advocacy group.


“There’s
almost a disincentive for a cable operator to make it successful,”
Haasch said — something that Lansing has learned the hard way.


The most desirable model, Haasch said, is a center managed by an entire community.


“Whether
it’s a municipal consortium, a community college, or schools, there
have got to be community institutions that can be leveraged,” he said.


As
for Lansing’s plan to revamp community access, Haasch said that there
are successful grant-based community access programs, but they have to
be managed properly.


“Conceptually, it can work,” he said. “But there have to be administrative controls.”


Haasch said it is also very important to have
a physical location for community access — a studio. Though it is not
cheap, a consortium of governments working together can nurture a
public access facility. Public Media Network began in 1983 operating in
a fieldhouse owned by the city of Kalamazoo with a $1 per year lease.


“That’s
how this facility was able to survive for the first 20 years,” Haasch
said. “You’ve got to have some kind of infrastructure resources
available.


“It
makes sense, in my mind, if (the Lansing region) can get a
multi-jurisdictional agreement, you could replicate what Battle Creek
and Kalamazoo have from an intergovernmental perspective. The caveat to
that is that trying to get local governments to cooperate is difficult.
It has taken over 20 years to get Portage to join (the Public Media
Network). It isn’t an easy road, but it can be done.”


Off the air


As
far as local cable access gurus, Ben Stark is probably the closest the
Lansing area has to a Haasch or Geminder (except Deborah Guthrie, who
manages HOM- TV). He used to run the Lansing School District’s local
access programming, and was a contractor with the city of Lansing in
2007 and 2008 studying our local cable access needs. He was involved in
discussions about creating a local regional nonprofit community cable
access center. And last year, the Cable Advisory Board unanimously
recommended Stark be hired as director of the Office of Community Media.


Stark
applied for the job in November 2008, and had an interview with Hannan
and representatives from the city’s Human Resources Department. But
Neal McNamara/City Pulse after a Cable Advisory Board meeting in
January 2009 — where it recommended him for the position — Stark never
heard another word. He still has messages on his phone from a city
Human Resources representative after he had called to follow up on the
job. (In a message, the rep tells Stark that she has no information
about the job and to contact Hannan. A City Pulse story from 2008 about
the city intending to create the position points out that there was
money was allotted in the 2008-’09 budget for the position.)


But
Stark never heard anything from the city. Frustrated, he withdrew his
application for the position several months ago. Hannan said that the
city had intended to charge “end users” of PEG channels — LCC, MSU, the
school district — an administrative fee that could be put toward a
salary, but tight budgets put a stop to it.


Upon
hearing about the city’s plans announced last Tuesday, Stark questioned
whether the two people who staff City TV would be able to take on the
duties of overseeing public access, too.


“It doesn’t stand the test of the displacement theory,” he said.


But he said he’s not sour over a lost job opportunity. His
enthusiasm that Lansing get a community media center is unbridled.
While he was working for the city on contract, he led Lansing
officials, local producers, Cable Advisory Board members, and officials
from other municipalities on tours of successful media centers in Troy,
Farmington, Mount Pleasant, Midland and Haasch’s center in Kalamazoo.
He submitted reports to city administrators as a contractor, but saw
little movement.


Hoping to see a community media center established in the Lansing region, Stark is disappointed by the city’s newest proposal.


“I
don’t see how the grant process cultivates good producers,” Stark said.
“It’s a passive approach masquerading as an active approach.”


Stark
is not the only one who is frustrated with the city’s efforts. Ken
Orlich, who chaired the Cable Advisory Board, quit a few months ago
because he did not feel like he was contributing. The board had trouble
finding a quorum, and after months of waiting on Stark to be hired, the
board was apprised that there was no money for it. And above those
issues, Lansing still does not have a local cable access facility.


“The time to open a new facility is when the one in Lansing closed,” Orlich said.


Talk of a community media center in the region, however, predates the Bernero administration.


Marcus
Cheatham, a spokesman for the Ingham County Health Department, said
that talk of a community media center got underway around 2004 after a
community health survey revealed the need. A business plan that called
for pooling PEG and franchise fees was put together and shopped to
Lansing, East Lansing and Meridian Township.


“The
vision was for it to be right downtown (Lansing),” he said. "It would
be walkable to people, and we would do programs with schools — it would
be a vibrant and creative place.”


The
idea eventually bore the Capital Area Community Media Center, which
launched in 2005 with the goal of facilitating local cable access and
training local residents in all forms of media. It has a nonprofit
status and a Web site, but its goal of creating a community cable
access facility has gone nowhere. Penniman still helps run the media
center. Before hearing Hannan’s plan two weeks ago, he said that one of
the biggest questions hanging out there is whether Lansing will support
a regional project, or just go solo.


“I
don’t know if Lansing is still interested, or if it’s decided to do its
own project. I would support a regional initiative,” he said.


At
least one local community is trying the regional approach, whether
anyone else is interested. Susan McGillicuddy, the supervisor of
Meridian Township, said that HOM- TV is set to launch a regional
government access channel this summer. Two years ago, the township
applied for a $25,000 grant to create the channel. According to
documents produced by Stark, in 2007 the cities of Lansing and East
Lansing sent letters sup porting a regional effort.


But, McGillicuddy has not heard from either Lansing or East Lansing. She said, though, that they had met in the past.


“It bothers me a lot that it seems like everything has just stopped,” she said. “I’d like to see this move forward.”


McGillicuddy
said that if the regional channel launches, and no other municipalities
send materials to HOM-TV, their stuff simply won’t air. Hannan said
that the city has “had some conversation” about participation in the
regional channel and would “look forward to more conversations.”


“It just seems like in greater Lansing, we have more problems doing anything regional. And it’s ridiculous,” she said.


Digital transition


Though
City TV manager Dominic Cochran is unsure about the future since the
Office of Community Media plan has to be approved by Council, he said
he would welcome the task of being in charge of the office.


“I already work 60 hours per week, I’m happy to work 70,” he said.


He
sees the office as having a kind of “teach a man to fish, he’ll eat
forever” function. At this point, Comcast still has control over
channel 16. Though, he said, giving control to the city could be as
easy as flipping a switch and purchasing some new equipment. At a City
Council meeting in December, Hannan reported that local control of
channel 16 could be given back to the city as early as July.


“That’s the first order of business: getting back that local control of playback,” he said.


The
situation with I-tec, as it has been explained to him, would have a
production facility in the gymnasium of the building. Video production
classes could be taught there, but Cochran would like to have users out
in the field, shooting.


Penniman says that the administration’s newest
plan feels like a government-run model of community media, like Ann
Arbor’s public access. His preferred model would be a community run
nonprofit.


“I’ve made that case many times, and it’s really gone nowhere,” he said.


Has
he ever been given a reason?


“Not really,” he said.


“There are
differences of opinion on how to do it; there are different models,”
Hannan said when asked why a community nonprofit model was not used.
“We think that, to get this capacity up and running, it is best to do
it first as a city and then to extend it to take a more regional
approach.”


But, it’s better to get the public back on the air sooner than later.


Said
Penniman: “I do think it makes sense to do something to get public
access back on the air for Lansing, without waiting for regional
discussions to be completed. I hope those discussions will start in a
more dedicated fashion soon.”

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