Can Carlisle go it alone for public cable TV?

An informal task force working with Carlisle Town Administrator Tim Goddard has begun to explore what Carlisle would have to do to establish an independent operation to provide public access cable television to residents.

The move that precipitated the Carlisle group’s formation originated in the Concord Select Board decision not to sign a renewal agreement with CCTV, the current provider, when the current contract expires September 30. Under the agreements that license Comcast to provide cable in each town, the company gives Carlisle and Concord 4. 8% of customers’ bills (“franchise fees”) to support public, educational and government access TV (PEG access TV). The towns have then turned over what is collected to the non-profit CCTV to broadcast government meetings, Concord-Carlisle High School activities and material produced by members of the public trained to use CCTV’s equipment. CCTV broadcasts on cable channels 8, 9 and 99. This year, Carlisle’s funding totaled roughly $125K.

Concord has offered to provide Carlisle public access TV for $80,000 annually. Selectmen must decide before Carlisle’s Town Meeting in April how to appropriate the PEG Access funds collected from Comcast for the next fiscal year, and Concord Town Manager Chris Whelan wants an answer to Concord’s offer by June or July. 

At a January 29 meeting, members Christine Lear, Selectman Claude von Roesgen, former Selectman Bill Risso, CCTV Board member Sid Levin and Goddard reviewed the issues to be resolved to organize separate production in Carlisle, which Lear had summarized in a memo circulated to the group.

Equipment 

The CCTV studio and equipment are located 20 minutes away at Concord-Carlisle High School (CCHS), and inaccessibility and sparce coverage by CCTV staff of events in Carlisle have been ongoing issues for years. Lear’s memo and the group’s discussion focused on what would be required to ensure easy access for Carlisle residents and students to recording, editing and possibly broadcasting equipment.

Although Concord Town Manager Chris Whelan has said that Carlisle can keep what is already installed in the Clark Room at Town Hall, Concord’s current contract with CCTV states that Concord owns all Comcast equipment, even the proportion funded with past Carlisle PEG access funds. If that provision is enforceable, an autonomous Carlisle operation would face technical and financial obstacles buying, installing and maintaining what would be required.

Lear’s memo suggests, and Selectman von Roesgen has argued at Board of Selectmen (BOS) meetings, that what residents need to record and produce videos for cable TV can and should be easily accessible, through the library for residents and Carlisle School for middle school students. Both the school and the Gleason Library already have some equipment, and the community room in the Robbins School Building is wired for broadcasting, but equipment would still be a major expense.

The most costly piece of equipment would be a server with the capacity to broadcast and stream video, Risso told the group. Levin estimated that this server could cost around $100K and suggested that the town could save upfront and high maintenance costs by renting server space from CCTV.

Goddard will explore with Comcast what is needed for the town to get access to a broadcast channel on its own, where the server to accomplish that could be located, and whether the company will provide Carlisle any equipment or funding. Von Roesgen, Levin and Risso planned to investigate what in the CCHS studio could be used on a “pay-as-you-go” basis.

Government control

Others have questioned the idea of town governments running local cable access services. State Representative Corey Atkins, at a recent League of Women Voters forum, questioned the “doubtful authority” of the Concord Town Manager or Select Board to take this action without a vote of Town Meeting. “Farmers [didn’t take a stand at] the North Bridge so government could control the media” at any level, Atkins said.

Oversight

The question of government control of media that disturbed Atkins and others in Concord has not been raised yet in Carlisle. Lear’s memo proposes establishing a Carlisle media access board to manage the production and broadcast of videos produced by a separate operation, but there has been little discussion in Carlisle of how that would work. 

For von Roesgen, any professional staff should be located in Carlisle, to allow for local oversight and connection and control over programming, but the town should “keep it small” because funds are not sufficient to maintain a big facility. He estimated that CCTV professional staff currently produce programs (about 40 BOS meetings and up to two Town Meetings yearly) that would cost about $30,000 to produce using freelance camera operators. This would leave about $50,000 of the fees that would otherwise be paid to Concord to cover other costs, possibly to hire instructors to educate citizens how to use the equipment, and rental payments to Concord to use equipment or studio space there.

Carlisle Selectmen Luke Ascolillo and Kerry Kissinger have proposed a short-term Carlisle contract with Concord as a transition to a separate venture. Kissinger advised that the town should determine more the specific level of services needed, and commitment for support from residents before the town goes it alone. He recommended that Carlisle go along with a year-to-year agreement with Concord, monitored by a Carlisle Media Access Board, before the town strikes out on its own. That advisory board could also seek support for independent operations by others in town, Kissinger said. 

(See also letter from CCTV to Concord Select Board, below.) ∆

CCTV Board of Directors letter on Concord’s decision to end contract

To the Concord Select Board:

In the aftermath of the LVW [League of Women Voters] forum on CCTV this past Friday, February 2, it became evident that a number of concerned citizens are wondering why the CCTV board has not been more proactive about moving CCTV forward.

This sort of questioning is part of the general scrutiny our board and organization faces, as the issue of the town taking over CCTV comes to the foreground and grows more heated.  We see this public discourse as a healthy part of the process of figuring out how best to proceed in Concord with PEG. Of course, improvements can always be made, but we have always had the best interests of the organization in mind.  We see a need, at this point, to clarify some misconceptions and defend our organization.

Since signing the 2015 contract, our ability to advocate for CCTV—moving it forward in terms of public outreach, technological innovations, programming, etc.—has been crippled by the distractions and limitations of our relationship with the town.

We would like to make you aware of the following examples of our difficulties [in Concord]:

1) We tried to install an updated system in the Town House, but this plan, that was years in the making, was nixed three weeks before implementation.

2) Our budget is controlled by the town, in an exceedingly limiting way.

3) The town is constantly and inappropriately in arrears with routine payments.

4) There has been a lack of formal communication regarding requests for coverage of government meetings that were not on our schedule.

5) Contrary to statements made by town officials that a disproportionate amount of programming is being produced by CCTV for Carlisle, Concord programming consistently represents approximately 80 percent of overall programming at CCTV.

Please understand that it has become impossible to run this organization properly under these circumstances. How can one plan for the future when the organization is effectively told it has none?  This situation has been our quandary for the last few years.

With hindsight, it is clear that the 2015 contract began a strangulating process, and effectively killed our ability to operate with long-term objectives.  We hope the Select Board will consider this situation, as they evaluate our current effectiveness, and whether the town could do a better job running the station themselves, or would gain more by having a separate organization run the station with improved communication and direction.

We did not formally protest some of the interactions with the town [of Concord], as we felt a need to protect our staff and ensure a good outcome for them.

We believe that with full transparency, and a broad understanding of the underlying issues, we can all engineer a better outcome for “CCTV”—whether it be a town-run station that has appropriate checks and balances, and a reasonable arrangement for our staff, or a continuing, nonprofit entity.  It is not our intention to make this a confrontational process, but to make good decisions, based on solid information that serves the town and its PEG-related goals.

We look forward to continued dialogue on this matter, and we have shared this letter with the Concord Board of Selectmen.

CCTV Board of Directors