Bellingham public access TV backers tout benefits

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJuly 16, 2013 

Bellingham TV

Telecasts of Bellingham City Council meetings are a regular feature on the city's current BTV10 channel, which provides no public access. City Council is moving ahead with a plan to develop a new public television channel that will be available on the Comcast system.

THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

BELLINGHAM - Backers of a new public access television channel say they are certain the benefits of that channel will justify the public cost, and the costs won't be as high as previously estimated by Mayor Kelli Linville and her staff.

Suzanne Blais, who has been trying to convince the City Council of public access television benefits since at least 2006, said Bellingham is full of people with stories to tell and videos to broadcast. Those people will flock to the new channel that the current City Council is now planning to launch, although that launch is still many months away.

"Give it six months and it will be full," Blais said.

City officials already have their own channel, BTV10, which uses about $283,000 a year in Comcast cable television fee revenue to offer public viewing of City Council meetings and a variety of other civic events. As Blais sees it, the public should get a channel, too.

Robert Clark, who now manages video services at Western Washington University, once helped operate public access television in Eugene, Ore., and said he has seen the benefits.

"We're starting something that we should have had all these last 14 years," Clark said.

But isn't the whole idea of public access television becoming obsolete in the age of blogs, YouTube and other web-based platforms that people can use to broadcast themselves, their organizations and their causes?

Clark and Blais acknowledge the changing information landscape. Blais is already offering an array of local video programming on a website maintained by the organization that she heads - the Center for New Media. But she and Clark argue that traditional media platforms still have an important role to play.

"Even though we're still in transition, cable (television) is still relevant," Clark said. "People still buy it. BTV10 continues to get viewership. People still want local programming."

Clark compared web-based programming to putting a message in a bottle and tossing it into the sea. There is no guarantee that anyone will get the message. But a television channel with local programming can be a focal point to air community viewpoints and controversies.

Blais agreed.

"On the Internet, you essentially get lost," Blais said. "There's no aggregation point. With the Internet, you have to know what you want in order to find it. It's getting harder and harder to find out how to identify ourselves locally."

The cost of the new channel could be as much as $380,000 in operational startup costs, plus annual operating expenses of about $200,000, according to estimates from Marty Mulholland, the city's information technology director. On top of that, the channel would require about $195,000 worth of equipment to get started, plus another $85,000 per year in equipment expenses.

But both Clark and Blais said those estimates seem high, and in any event, all the money for the new channel would not have to come from the city budget. Blais said volunteers could help reduce the cost, and the station could conduct fundraising drives just as PBS stations already do.

City Council member Jack Weiss noted that the council has already established a new revenue source to cover the expense: an increase in Comcast's city franchise fee from 4.25 percent to 5 percent of revenues, plus a 50-cent per month fee for Comcast's estimated 24,000 customers. Those customers will be the only ones who will get the new channel.

As Weiss sees it, BTV10 has been a major success with significant viewership, and that is strong evidence that a public channel would be widely used here.

"I believe that public access television can be a forum for people to express their opinions to other people in the community, to have that dialog occur," Weiss said.

Council member Stan Snapp agreed.

"I think we'll get a wide range of programming that we're not getting now," Snapp said.

Among other things, Snapp said such a channel could cover the Ski to Sea race and parade, as well as local sporting events. KVOS television once did those kinds of things before it phased out local programming, Snapp said.

As a first step toward getting the new channel to Comcast subscribers, the city will issue a request for proposals to recruit interested organizations and individuals who want to operate the channel. Then the proposals will have to be evaluated, and the City Council will decide on who has the best proposal and attempt to negotiate a deal.

Blais said her Center for New Media will be submitting a proposal.

Clark said he too would like to use the new channel.

"When this thing gets off the ground, I'm going to be one of the first people at the door producing programming," Clark said.

Reach John Stark at 360-715-2274 or john.stark@bellinghamherald.com. Read his Politics blog at blogs.bellinghamherald.com/politics or follow him on Twitter at @bhamheraldpolitics.

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