Local-access cable shows are sharpening their focus
Public-access programs sharpen with advances in technology, funding
n a recent evening inside a cavernous former bank in downtown Brockton, Manuel Andrade sat down in front of three studio cameras and taped his 782d cable-access show in Creole.
That same week, Joe Lynch arrived at a former fire station in Union Square to interview Attorney General Martha Coakley, a gubernatorial candidate, on Somerville Community Access TV.
In Newton, Jenn Adams delivered details of Mayor Setti Warren's proposed budget as she read from a teleprompter on NewTV.
It has been 42 years since a landmark decision by the Federal Communications Commission created public access channels, opening the door to free speech advocates and anyone with the gumption and time to air a TV show for free on local cable.
Long known for shaky cameras, scratchy sound, patchwork lighting, and a paucity of viewers, local access programming has improved in quality as the cable TV stratosphere has grown. Community stations receive up to 5 percent of the cable franchise's annual local gross revenues.
Last year, Verizon provided $31.1 million to 113 communities in Greater Boston, according to spokesman Phil Santoro. Comcast, the state's largest cable provider, could not break down its figures, said Marc Goodman, the company's Greater Boston director of public relations.
The funds have allowed high-definition cameras and digital editing suites with broadcast-quality graphics, turning these once primitive studios into full-blown video production centers.
Depending on how much of a percentage of revenues a municipality has asked a cable company to provide, and the cable tiers people buy, the line item on a subscriber's bill (look for the PEG — Public Education Government — grant fee) might range from just under a dollar to more than $5 a month. The higher monthly payments put cable access in the same financial range as networks such as ESPN, which charges cable companies an average of $6.04 for each subscriber, according to media researcher SNL Kagan , making it the most expensive channel in most basic cable packages.
For years, people have debated whether or not it's worth it to fund local programming such as live coverage of city council and school board meetings, news and talk shows, and high school sports. Some subscribers, like Merrie Sylvia, didn't even know that she was paying a fee for local access in Peabody.
"Given the choice, I wouldn't pay for it. I don't watch it now," she said.
Since local programming has never been included in TV rating services such as Nielsen, it's been impossible to get an idea of an audience size or who is watching. Over the years, some cable companies and access groups have conducted polling, but most of the time stations have relied on anecdotal feedback about their programs.
But here's a glimpse of the potential: In 2012, the Newton station won its first Boston/New England Emmy award for "Folklorist," where host John Horrigan weaves tales of intrigue using historic footage and an in-studio cast and crew. Beginning in July, the show will be nationally syndicated to 62 million homes.
Michael Eggert, a Newton resident, said he has watched local access programming just two or three times in the last 15 years, but he still thinks it's a good service for subscribers and doesn't mind paying a few dollars extra a month. "I think it's a good thing for people who want to have a voice and want to be heard. I think it's a necessary inconvenience," said Eggert.
Facing a new frontier
Howard Horton, who led the Massachusetts Cable Television Commission in the early 1980s and is now president of New England College of Business, believes that even if cable companies decided to give viewers the option to keep or drop access stations, the consumer's bill could even grow higher since federal law allows cable operators to raise their rates at will.
"There's nothing that would create a ceiling on the rate, even if you didn't have the money going into the public access channels," said Horton.
According to the FCC, the price of cable basic tiers or "bundling" has grown at more than twice the rate of inflation annually over the last 17 years.
But some companies such as Netflix and Amazon have lured people away from cable by offering streaming movies. Aereo, which allows subscribers to watch free broadcast stations on the Internet like ABC, CBS, and NBC for $8 a month, has tried to create an a la carte option for consumers, cutting out the local access channels and associated fees charged by Comcast, RCN, Verizon, and other providers. Aereo's right to operate is now being challenged in the Supreme Court, and that decision is being watched closely by the cable industry and public access stations.
Skip Tenczer, who helped build access stations in southern Massachusetts in the 1980s, and who now serves as an assistant professor of communications at the University of New Hampshire, said a la carte programming could eliminate guaranteed funding to local access stations.
"If it goes a la carte, then people are going to have to choose what it is that they purchase and as a result, probably the most developed local access efforts will be the most successful," said Tenczar.
Stations in Newton and Brookline already have begun to diversify, rebranding their facilities as media centers that offer everything from digital TV production classes and programs to computer and photography workshops. Both stations even have private screening theaters that are used by other nonprofits for lectures and documentary film premieres.
"Our goal is to lessen our dependency on cable television for our operating budget," said Robert Kelly, executive director of NewTV, the Newton access center that has a $1.4 million annual budget. He expects to raise an additional $150,000 this year in private donations to the organization, which he considers a high-tech extension of the YMCA or Boys & Girls Club. With an artists gallery in the hallways, summer camps for video production, and a Facebook for Seniors computer club, Kelly sees diversification and a move away from just TV production as a way for access stations to bring the community together.
"Public access is the old model. That was the 'Wayne's World' show. That was the model of free speech," he said. "We've had to rebrand to stay relevant."
Still, TV production is the main focus of most public access centers, and the quality of programming has improved at many stations as equipment has gone digital. The format change has lowered equipment prices, making the gear smaller and easier to use and allowing amateurs to create shows that sometimes mirror network offerings.
Gems in the region can be found by channel surfing or clicking on the station's websites. A recent "Somerville Neighborhood News" dedicated seven minutes to the plight of a high school student who longs to go to college but isn't eligible for scholarships or grants because of his legal status as an undocumented immigrant. Access Framingham aired a concert of the MetroWest Sympany Orchestra. In towns such as Foxborough, high school football games are covered with multiple cameras and even include sideline reporters.
Local access stations can sometimes be used to rally the community. In Milford, Brittany Silverman, 11, came up with the idea of holding a live telethon to raise funds for new air conditioning at the Milford Performing Arts Center. The six-hour telethon, which featured live performances, raised more than $4,000, according to the telethon's Facebook page.
At NewTV, Adams serves as the station's news director and produces "Newton News," one of the stations most popular programs. The core of the show is put together by high school and college interns, with Adams — who started at the station 20 years ago as a volunteer — serving as a mentor. She teaches them how to shoot and edit video and do voiceovers, and prepares them to get reporting jobs once they finish college.
"So far, out of the 100 I've taught, 46 have gotten jobs," said Adams.
Lynch, who has taped almost 500 shows since 2008 in Somerville, said he started his program because he wanted to have a voice in city affairs.
"I believe public access provides the guy on the street, the average Joe, an opportunity to tell their own story and have it broadcast," said Lynch. "We don't have to answer to television or newspaper ownership or the political powers. We answer to good taste and what the public wants."
Mark Linde, general manager of Brockton Community Access, said that station also is making the shift to a media center, like Newton and Brookline. As he walked through the 26,000-square-foot former bank, he pointed to a vacant second-floor room he hopes to transform into a screening theater.
"I want to be more of a community media center; I don't want to be just television," said Linde, who has 32 years' experience in public access. "What access centers are challenged to do is diversify their income stream."
Meanwhile, one of the faces of Brockton, Manuel Andrade, prepared to tape another segment of "Selo Ernestina," which is named for a Cape Verdean cargo ship. At 77, the retired handyman has been hosting the show since 1993. When asked why he still comes in every week, he explained that he does it for the local Cape Verdean population — which the US Census's 2008-2012 American Community Survey estimated at about 13,000 — some of whom do not speak English.
"I like serving the community," he said.