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Producer Urges Councils to Guard Public Access Programming

The producer of ‘Democratic Visions’ says it’s important to look out for public access programming in the wake of the recently approved cable franchise agreement.

Editor’s Note: Jeff Strate, the producer of Democratic Visions, sent the following letter to Hopkins, Richfield, Minnetonka, Edina and Eden Prairie officials. Strate and other producers who used the Eden Prairie public access studio that served five southwestern communities disagree with that closed the Eden Prairie studio.

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Dear Mayor and Council Members,

First of all, thank you for the considerations, conversations, thoughts and deliberations that you have contributed to the concerns and perspectives of the public access producers who have operated from the former Southwest Community TV studio in Eden Prairie. We have begun to build for the future.

I am requesting prompt consideration of a narrow request pertaining to the Southwest Suburban Cable Commission’s task to provide a plan for future PEG programming, production and transmission. I am urging each City Council to act on this request before October.

 

REQUESTED ACTION

Direct the Southwest Suburban Cable Commission to include as part of its process to research, evaluate, formulate and to recommend to its member cities, a plan for public access cable television production facilities and playback systems: 

  1. Two knowledgeable and experienced public access producers who are residents of one of member cities,
  2. A public or commercial television producer, and
  3. An access studio & facilities managers; and
  4. Alternates for the above.

Rationale Supporting the Requested Action:

The Southwest Suburban Cable Commission (SWSCC) recommendation to approve the contract and then to assign its members – elected and municipal officials - with little or no television or public access studio/channel experience to over the next year figure out its future:

  1. Is not in the best interest of Comcast Cable subscribers in particular or of the residents of the 5 cities;
  2. Ignores the advantage of having direct, at-the-table contact with professional and access producers and access managers with real work and real project experience outside of municipal and school district operations;
  3. Risks perpetuating a situation that has long restrained our local public access studio from becoming the rich, more inclusive kind of community resource found in other metro area communities. 
  4. Risks subjecting public access television to political, editorial and institutional biases of municipal governments and school districts.

Elaboration: Prior to the cable franchise contract approvals.

The five city councils of the southwest suburban cable group were provided little time to consider and review the facts and the complex issues that define public access television, its funding, its purpose and its performance locally and regionally and its role in the well being and vitality of our respective communities and the nation. 

Only Minnetonka and Richfield held public hearings.  Access producers greatly appreciate the two hearings as well as the opportunities to speak in non-hearing council deliberations in Eden Prairie and Minnetonka.  We also greatly appreciate the Edina and Hopkins council members and staff members who talked with us on the phone and/or read our respective letters and materials.

An important component of what producers were saying were responses to the distortion of the operation and use of the Eden Prairie access studio; Channel 15 programming and the role of public access TV by SWSCC administrator Brian Grogan and the May 25, 2010 report ”Southwest Cable Communications Commission PEG Access Needs Assessment.”   Holly Hansen Consulting prepared this report.  The report was accepted by the SWSCC and was referred to by Mr. Grogan during his presentations.  

By omission the report is incomplete and misleading and was seemingly crafted to serve the narrow interests of city government communication offices rather than the community whole.

An example: Not one public access producer was approached by Holly Hansen Consulting, by SWSCC members or their administrator for the report.  It is also my understanding that not a single commissioner or its administrator questioned the adequacy of the report. 

Further more, it should be noted that some council members in Minnetonka, Eden Prairie, Richfield and Edina, did express dissatisfaction with the adequacy of the report and the manner in which the cable franchise renewal deliberations were being handled. 

Another example: The report states that in 2009, Channel 15 aired only 164 programs that were made by only 13 producers in the local Eden Prairie studio but aired 954 programs from elsewhere.

Cable commission administrator Brian Grogan’s spin to city councils has been that (my paraphrase): the report shows that there is little demand for a public access production studio and strongly suggests that access programming from outside our 5-city cable group will be good enough.

A high percentage of all the programming carried by all TV stations and public access studios and channels is produced in other places. For example, TPT2 (KTCA) produces a very small fraction of the programs it airs. So too, commercial television stations and the Minnesota Channel (state-wide and Western Wisconsin public television). Many of the Minnesota Channel programs are, in fact, assembled at public access studios by unpaid, volunteer producers, crewmembers and editors. Among these is BelAhdan, produced by Minnetonka resident Ahmed Tharwat in the Eden Prairie studio that has been shut down.

And, another example: The studio was never as available for citizen use as the study and Mr. Grogan’s presentations suggested. It was closed on weekends, and Monday and Friday evenings. Because the facility had only one recording machine, the studio was closed when that deck was used for editing in the control room. The studio was not available when Comcast and its predecessors rented studio cameras for the recording of on-location events such as Chamber of Commerce meetings; when it was reserved for training; when its sole manager, Michelle Glynn, was on vacation, on sick leave; or when the few video decks, audio and switching equipment needed repair.

 

Inadequate Performance by the SWSCC and its Administrator

It became apparent over the past six weeks that the SWSCC and administrator Brian Grogan failed to provide it, their respective cities and their resident public access producers with a timely transitional plan for both short and long terms. Mr. Grogan has since publicly acknowledged this shortcoming.

The corrective moves that have made over the past six weeks are appreciated but were cobbled together quickly only because city councils agreed with the producers.

Again, it is my position that decision and policy generating deliberations by the SWSCC will benefit from having actual access producers and managers at their meetings and sub-committee and executive committee meetings.

 

Review of recent actions

With its City Council vote on August 13, 2012, Richfield became the last of the southwest cable group cities to approve the cable TV franchise contract.  The SWSCC has recommended that it be provided a year to figure out the future of PEG Access Cable TV and how increased subscriber access fees for PEG channels, original programming and distribution will be spent.

The official alert to access producers that the Eden Prairie based, Comcast operated, access studio would shut down on August 1, 2012 was made a little more than a week in advance.  Some of the access producers had reserved studio time in August and September.

Producers and council members in Eden Prairie, Edina and Minnetonka and at least one city manager had thought that the Eden Prairie based access studio would continue to operate for a full year.  But on May 17, 2012 council members in Eden Prairie and Edina began to learn otherwise during non-public hearing deliberations pegged to a presentation describing and recommending the proposed contract.

Because of perspectives provided by producers to the Minnetonka, Eden Prairie, Edina and Richfield City Councils and subsequent discussions and directives made in Minnetonka, Edina and Eden Prairie, the SWSCC administrator was able to accomplish several short-term solutions:

  1. Comcast agreed to keep its access studio open through August to accommodate producers who had not been provided timely notice for the August 1 closure date.  Producers were officially notified of the closure postponement via email on August 1, 2012.   The monthly access program that I produce for DFL Senate District 48, having taped enough studio segments to serve it through mid-November, did not return to the Comcast studio.
  2. On August 23, 2012, SW Community TV access producers were notified by the SWSCC administrator via email that arrangements had been made with the Lake Minnetonka Cable Commission that qualified SW Community TV producers could use its access production studio and editing suites in Spring Park from September 1, 2012 through December 31, 2012.  (See below)
  3. On July 30, 2012, access producers were officially informed via email by Comcast access studio manager Michelle Glynn that Channel 15 would continue to operate for a year under the same terms for program submission that have been in place for a number of years. Ms. Glynn (whose new title at Comcast is LO/Access Specialist, included an attachment of the SW Community TV guide lines.

These recent actions were only initiated after citizen producers and the respective city councils had become aware of what was happening to public access television in their communities. Some council members have come to realize that the little known resource has been squandered by their city governments, school districts and community service groups.

I do not claim to represent the other access producers who, because of the manner in which local public access production has operated, barely know one another. I can, however, confidently assume that they too appreciate recent corrective actions even though they are planted with many a hurdle.

Some SW Community TV programs like Lets Learn to Get Along with Lisa Butts, will most likely be unable to use the Spring Park facility.  Taking advantage of one of the best tenants of access television production, our SW producers, with little or no training in studio production, set design, editing, lighting and engineering, were able to assemble from one to three, ready-to-air programs in a single two to four hour session at the Eden Prairie studio. That is not possible at the Spring Park.

I am responding positively to the situation, but if SW access producers had been recruited to assist in the search for temporary studio space, a better alternative might have been arranged for programs like Lisa Butts'.

My perspective is not saddled to the ambitions of Democratic Visions, the program I produce for DFL Senate District 48. It is shaped from an experience that demonstrates that access cable TV has an important role in the well being of communities; it provides engaging portals for a richly textured and diverse citizenry who are ignored or shut out from local and regional media or get lost in social media’s blizzard of messages.

During the August 6th Minnetonka City Council Hearing on the franchise contract, Member Brad Weirsum recognized that value and spoke of it to his council colleagues:

“ … It is not that we can't change. I think we have to change [the access studio] is pretty clear, but to change over a period of 45 days for something as involved as this with no solution in hand - just a plan to study it - to me feels like a real weakness in our plan.  ...   I've been on the council 9 years; this is the most diverse group I have ever seen in this council chamber. And when I hear that we are taking away a voice away people who don't have a voice. To me that is a critical issue and that deserves more than forty-five days.”

In approximately one year, the SWSCC hopes that a new, independently operated playback facility will be in place to continue the transmission of Public, Education and Government access programs and that a plan will have been submitted for consideration or have actually been approved for a permanent access production facility or some variation of same.

But public access facilities and public access channel 15 remain at high risk if the Southwest Suburban Cable Commission does not include access producers, access managers and one or two professionals from public and/or commercial television in drawing up a plan.

I understand that the recurring tone and omissions of the commission’s analysis of public access production and Channel 15 and Mr. Grogan’s presentations to the city councils were building a case to abandon the public access concept and the resource.

I also understand that public access resources thrive and are of value to communities when they operate independent of municipal government; when they are shielded from government’s editorial control; and when citizens know that they can use them.

With warmest regards,

Jeff Strate, Producer Democratic Visions

DFL Senate District 48 – Eden Prairie/Minnetonka

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