Gearing Up For Local Access
(from Maine Townsman, April 1997)
By Jo Josephson, Staff Writer

In Scarborough (pop. 13,128), not only do they broadcast their council meeting live, they rebroadcast it at least nine times in the course of a week following the meeting, to make sure the public has ample opportunity to view the meeting. In doing so, they are making use of almost $80,000 worth of equipment paid for by Time-Warner Cable, the company with which they have negotiated a franchise agreement.

While cable operators, like Time-Warner, have been required to provide municipalities with the equipment needed to produce their own programs and the channel space needed to air them for some time now, until recently cities and towns have not vigorously exercised the option. Scarborough was no exception to this rule, negotiating hard and long in the early 90’s, only after its first franchise expired.

But as an increasing number of first franchise agreements expire, more than a handful of Maine municipalities have begun to negotiate hard for the dollars they need to buy the equipment to produce - in the jargon of the industry - what is known as "PEG" (public, educational, governmental) programming.

If you doubt, it you haven’t heard that in Lewiston-Auburn recent joint renegotiations of the cable franchise yielded $50,000 for equipment to produce their own programs. Or that in Freeport, they are currently negotiating hard for more than $160,000 to set up a full-blown studio. To name a few.

To get some idea of how Scarborough managed to come out on the winning end back in 1992, the TOWNSMAN called some of the key players there to have them share their experiences and advice when it came to negotiating for and purchasing equipment. It also asked two of their elected officials what, if any, impact live coverage has had on their public meetings.

NEGOTIATING FOR EQUIPMENT

As Scarborough’s Bruce Gullifer sees it, Time-Warner Cable grossed $1.8 million last year as a result of its franchise agreement with the Town of Scarborough, so it would be hard for the company to walk away from such a lucrative scenario merely because the town asked for a piece of the action.

As such, Scarborough entered into renegotiations with Time-Warner Cable asking for $150,000 to equip its new studio. In 1992, more than a year after it began negotiations, it settled for $77,000 with the understanding that should the town extend its franchise, it would automatically receive an additional $25,000 contribution to purchase additional equipment.

But that wasn’t all. Scarborough also negotiated for and won a $1,000 annual application fee and a three percent franchise fee that brings in more than $50,000 a year to the town to pay the part-time director of its cable channel.

But as Gullifer correctly saw, you just don’t walk away from $1.8 million in gross receipts a year; you’ve got too much invested.

In the first franchise in 1984, the town was nowhere near as aggressive. It didn’t ask for any money to purchase equipment, and it waived its franchise fee to persuade the company to cover streets with less density. It merely settled for a modulator to send the cable signal to the company’s head end some 15 miles away. And used its own money - some $10,000 - to purchase two cameras, some lights, a couple of VCRs and some microphones. In doing so, it followed a typical scenario played out by many of the cities and towns in Maine.

But the second time round, the approach was different. As Gullifer explains, it was a "I want approach". "If you don’t ask, you don’t receive; you have to play hardball; you have to think of yourself as a business," advises Gullifer.

As such, Gullifer did his calculations before going into negotiations. He figured out how much the company was earning from the town and then sought and received -- after six months -- the company’s financial statement, confirming his calculations. Knowing how much the company was grossing gave him the leverage he needed, according to Gullifer.

Gullifer, the town’s community services director, and George Burns, the town's attorney, worked as a negotiationg team.

PURCHASING EQUIPMENT

Gullifer says the town had another strong card to play. "We knew what we wanted when we went into negotiations."

And what Scarborough wanted was $150,000 to equip a studio. And the town wanted to purchase its own equipment, and said "no" when the company said, "You give us a list of equipment and we will provide you with it."

As Pete Hanson, the part-time director and chief engineer of the town cable channel, explains, when you buy the equipment yourself, you can save a lot of money. Which is to say, you can squeeze more equipment out of the dollars. To begin with you can save on the sales tax, you can buy wholesale, and you can ensure that you are buying the latest models.

Hanson, who is a telephone repairman by day, began as a volunteer on the town’s cable channel in the mid-80’s. Today, he is paid, part-time staff working evenings providing live coverage of all of the town’s official meetings. He recalls the mid-80’s when the town taped the meetings, using camcorders on a tripod and brought the tape to the company’s studio for broadcasting.

Today, Hanson broadcasts live, out of a studio in the town hall, adjacent to the town’s council chambers, using three remote-controlled cameras. He says he stays away from no-brands and finds Panasonic equipment to be dependable and fairly priced.

He likes working with three cameras because one camera, which must be kept moving, creates a dizzying effect. As such, one of his cameras is fixed. "It gives you a good cover shot of the whole room and serves as a fall back when adjusting the other cameras," he explains. The other two cameras are moveable; one is able to focus on individual council members; the other focuses on members of the audience.

Some General Guidelines

Tony Vigue, who heads up the Community Television Association of Maine (C-TAM) (see sidebar), when not serving as the manager of the Community Television Station in South Portland, and chair of the Citizen’s Committee on Cable TV in Standish, says from his experience, there are cable companies that want to give the minimum equipment, and there are some who want to partner.

"By law [30-A MRSA 3010(5)] the companies must provide you with minimum equipment, if you ask," says Vigue, adding, "beyond that it is negotiation." He stresses the need for preparation before you ask, noting the importance of doing a needs assessment of your community to be sure you get what you need. (See article on page 17).

That said, Vigue shared with the TOWNSMAN, some ballpark figures for three different scenarios. All three assume "live coverage". All three assume that the meeting rooms are equipped with a "modulator" that allows for "return feed" to the "head end". Return feeds are critical; think about where you want them put; the cable company must put them where you designate you want them, says Vigue.

If you don’t, says Vigue, you may be covering meetings in locations with no modulators. If you don’t, you may find yourself transporting equipment all over the place to make tapes that will be played at a later date.

Entry level. Getting started in local programming could cost as little as $1,000 or as much as $2,000, says Vigue, depending on the quality of the camcorder and the tripod that you purchase. Be sure to purchase a tripod with a fluid head, that is easy to adjust. There are no microphones in this bare-bones system. Your camcorder does both audio and visual. Sound could be a problem with this system, depending on the size of your room, warns Vigue. The better your camcorder, the better your sound, he adds.

It should be noted that Poland, which has been broadcasting its selectmen’s meetings live for more than a year, has added microphones and a sound mixer to its basic system bringing the cost of its system to about $5,000.

Intermediate level. Getting beyond the bare-bones could cost you as much as $15,000, calculates Vigue.

In this system you have at least two camcorders to record interaction. This system also provides for individual microphones for each person; good microphones with goose necks cost about $200 each. And because you are using several cameras and several microphones you will need a system of "mixers" which could cost you as much as $6,000. You’ll probably also want to amplify your sound, depending on the size of the room; a good system could cost as much as $3,000. For an additional $500 you can purchase a "Titler" that will spell out at the bottom of the viewing screen what the issue is, who is speaking, etc.

Advanced level. Top of the line could cost you about $60,000 or more calculates Vigue.

Included in this system is $25,000 to purchase four permanently installed remote controlled cameras; $8,000 for a built-in microphone system; $8,000 for an automatic tape playback system; and, last but not least, $5,000 for a console to put all the equipment in a separate control room.

IMPACT OF LIVE COVERAGE

Equipment aside, how does the live coverage impact the meetings?

"After a few meetings, it fades into the background," says Poland Town Manager, Richard Chick. Everyone contacted for this article concurred with Chick. Michael Martin, a member of the Scarborough Council since 1991, says getting used to the live coverage is just a part of the learning curve for newly elected officials. In a short time, they don’t even realize a camera is there.

Martin admits that cable coverage forces organization. "You are likely to be more organized and more formal in the conduct of your meeting. But that is the way it should be," says Martin. In this vein, Freeport Councilor Genie Beaulieu adds that officials "are forced to be better prepared for the meetings; they read the packet, beforehand, say those who admit they never used to open the packet until they got to the meeting."

Martin also says that the coverage is both a "blessing and a curse", that it increases the thirst for more information by the viewers/taxpayers. But that is no reason not to do it. He also notes that it also forces you to get into a little more background on the issues to make sure that occasional viewers are brought up to speed. Such a practice does tend to slow you down a bit, says Martin. But that again is no reason not to do it.

Judy Roy, who has served on the Scarborough Town Council since 1990, says her response to those who would prefer no coverage of the meetings is that elected officials are public figures. As such, "They can’t hide behind a camera." Her sentiments echo a comment made by Sanford Charter Commission member Daniel Primes, as reported in the Biddeford Journal Tribune on February 13, 1997, when arguing for the live coverage of all of the Commission meetings earlier this year. "We talk about important things," said Primes. "If people don’t have (guts) enough to be in front of the cameras, then maybe they shouldn’t be here."

Martin and others say they know people are watching, many more than they thought ever would. How do they know? The phone calls, the comments on the street.

So it is not surprising when Freeport’s Beaulieu notes that there is a tendency for councilors "to speak before the cameras when they are coming up for re-election." As chairman of the council, she also notes that if there is any posturing to be done, it usually occurs early in the evening, when people are surfing the channel.

RESOURCES

• MRSA Title 30-A, Section 3010, subsection 5, states that: "A franchise shall include provision for access to and facilities to make use of one or more local public, educational and governmental access channels subject to the definitions and requirements of the Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984, Public Law 98-549."

• CATV Rate Regulation, MAINE TOWNSMAN, December, 1993.

• Cable Regulation, MAINE TOWNSMAN, August, 1993.

• The 1992 Cable Amendments, MAINE TOWNSMAN, December, 1992.

• Facing The Cable Industry Goliath, MAINE TOWNSMAN, December, 1992.