BELLINGHAM - City Council is moving ahead with a plan to develop a new public television channel that will be available on the Comcast system.
The cost of the new channel has been estimated at $380,000 in operational startup costs, plus annual operating expenses of about $200,000. On top of that, the channel would also require about $195,000 worth of equipment to get started, plus another $85,000 per year in equipment expenses.
All or part of the money would come from Comcast and its subscribers. Comcast's franchise agreement with the city, approved in October 2011, requires the company to pay the city a fee amounting to 1 percent of its revenue, rising to 1.25 percent in 2014. Comcast subscribers pay the city a 50-cent fee on their monthly bills.
Mayor Kelli Linville said she would prefer to put the city's cable television revenues into the general fund to support other city services and help get the city's spending back into line with its revenues. The city has been covering its deficits by spending its financial reserves for the past few years.
But the City Council controls spending, and during budget deliberations in late 2012, the council agreed to hold cable television revenues in reserve to pay for additional public channels.
The city already operates BTV10, which offers City Council meetings and other civic events, but provides no public access.
City officials hope that some of the cost of a new public channel could be borne by those who want to use it to reach television viewers. Who will those users be? That remains to be determined.
The Comcast franchise agreement requires the cable company to make an additional two channels available to the city for public use. But because of the cost, the City Council has agreed with Linville and Marty Mulholland, city information technology director, to set up just one new channel for now. Some time before the end of the year, the mayor and her staff will develop a request for proposals, inviting interested groups or organizations to submit their plans for using and operating such a channel. The council would then get final say in deciding what proposals to accept.
Steve Swan, Western Washington University vice president of university relations, said the university has been working with representatives of Northwest Indian College, Bellingham Technical College, Whatcom Community College and Bellingham School District on possible use of the new city channel for educational programming. Swan said such a channel could offer performing arts, lectures, guest speakers, and specially produced programs on current issues, among other things.
But City Council members have made it clear that while they like that idea, they also want to make sure that the new channel doesn't squeeze out others who might want to be on television. At their July 1, 2013, meeting, the council voted 5-2 that any proposals for operation of the new channel must contain provisions for open public access.
Swan said it's too soon to tell if WWU and its educational partners will want to offer educational programming on a channel shared with public access programming. In other places, public access television channels have aired programming that some people find offensive, and that could be a problem for the schools.
"Our concern is being associated with what could potentially be objectionable programming," Swan said.
Based on a quick online survey, the programming now offered on public access stations in other communities seems to include a lot of cooking shows. The public access channel in Sturbridge, Mass., for example, offers a show called "Gourmet Grannies," produced at the local senior center.
In Boulder, Colo., a local citizen who calls himself Cosmic Pete has obtained air time for "Pete's Hot Tub Monologues." Pete, clad in swim trunks and a beat-up cowboy hat, sits in his hot tub taking occasional gulps from his bottle of beer while he harangues the camera about politics. The Boulder channel also has offered programming from the Atheists' Alliance.
In Clark County, Wash., Fort Vancouver Community Television seems to carry a heavy diet of Christian religious programming.
Swan said WWU and the other educational institutions will be waiting to see exactly how the city's request for proposals will be worded, before deciding if they want to submit a proposal.