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Can Carlisle go it alone for public cable TV?

by Nancy Pierce
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