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Funds for Public Access, Educational, TV, Languish in City Account

A portion residents' monthly cable TV bill is set aside to support public access television.

A portion residents’ monthly cable TV bill is set aside to support public access television.

Every month Alameda Comcast and AT&T U-verse subscribers pay so-called DIVCA fees on their cable bill, which is intended to support Public, Educational and Government (PEG) mass media access. While the City of Alameda has spent some of that money since 2011 on the “G,” none has been made available for the “P” and “E” functions.

In February, 2011, Alameda City Council approved, and then-Mayor Marie Gilmore signed, an ordinance bringing Alameda in line with the California Digital Infrastructure and Video Competition Act (DIVCA) of 2006 which transferred cable TV franchises from the local level to the state level.

Passage of DIVCA allowed Comcast to close its Alameda video studio in Marina Village Shopping Center, and its studio in Hayward, providing cost savings. A stated intent of DIVCA was to foster competition by eliminating the requirement on cable companies to fund and operate studios in every local jurisdiction.

The act also allows cable companies to itemize PEG recovery fees on bills to consumers.

Under the new state franchise model, Comcast and AT&T pay a percentage of gross revenue to local municipalities to support PEG programming, typically 1 percent, or, in Alameda, for 2014, $171,000.

Since Alameda came into line with DIVCA, it has recorded, according to information obtained from the City of Alameda under the California Public Records Act, $714,000 in PEG revenue.

The City of Alameda's current PEG fund account balance is just over $500,000. (Source: City of Alameda)

The City of Alameda’s current PEG fund account balance is just over $500,000. (Source: City of Alameda)

Of that, some $208,000 has been spent, according to the city clerk, to update the video broadcast equipment – system controls, cameras and audio equipment – in council chambers in Alameda City Hall.

This spending qualifies as Government spending under the rules for PEG dollars, and supports the local broadcast of City Council meetings on government channels on Comcast and AT&T U-verse. (Because of the nature of AT&T’s U-verse technology, all PEG content is accessed through channel 99).

That leaves roughly $506,000 in the PEG fund on the City of Alameda’s books.

Production Studios Closed

Several years ago, Comcast and Alameda Power & Telecom each operated studios in Alameda to facilitate the production of content for the public access and education channels.

The passage of the DIVCA act in 2006 allowed Comcast to ultimately close the Alameda facility, and the sale of Alameda Power & Telecom’s (now Alameda Municipal Power) failed telecom division to Comcast in 2008 closed that facility.

When Comcast closed its Hayward office, the City of Hayward contracted with Chabot College, in Hayward, and its media department to manage operations of the local PEG channels; Chabot TV KCTH broadcasts a public access channel on the Internet, on AT&T, and on Comcast Channel 27.

Hayward routes $117,000 per year to Chabot TV for the college to manage the PEG channels, and provide public access to studio facilities at Chabot’s Hayward campus.

The City of Fremont contracted with Chabot TV as well.

The City of Oakland contracted with the Peralta Community College District, which operates Peralta TV and the College of Alameda, to run its PEG channels for $200,000 per year.

Both Lara Weisiger, city clerk for Alameda, and a spokesperson for the California Public Utilities Commission, cautioned that PEG funds are to be used only for capital expenditures such as the acquisition of cameras, lights, mix boards, audio equipment, and so on, and can’t be used, for example, to hire a technician to operate the equipment.

After DIVCA, however, California municipalities found a way to deal with this.

A long-time cable industry insider, who insisted on not being named in this story, told Action Alameda News that after the cable company studios closed, and local municipalities enacted ordinances to align with DIVCA, as Alameda did in 2011, they established contracts with local colleges and universities, and other non-profits, to manage the PEG channels.

The local agencies themselves, this insider said, can’t spend the PEG money on anything but capital expenses. However, they can spend the money on contracts to manage the PEG channels, and the contractor can essentially spend the money as it sees fit to support delivery of services under the contract.

Although the City of Alameda took the first step, in 2011, enacting an ordinance to align with DIVCA, it never took the second step that many other jurisdictions did – contracting with an outside agency to manage the PEG channels with the local PEG dollars that residents pay on their cable bill.

As it stands today, the $500,000 in Alameda’s PEG fund could languish there, and grow by as much as $170,000 per year, essentially reserved for spending to support the “government” cable channel, with no funds available for the educational or public access channels, and no funds allocated to studio facilities to support local producers – independent filmmakers, high school or College of Alameda students in media classes – in creating content to air on the channels reserved for public access.

The City and County of San Francisco contracts with the Bay Area Video Coalition (BAVC), a non-profit organization, to run PEG channels there under the moniker SF Commons.

BAVC receives on the order of $200,000 per year in PEG funding from San Francisco.

According to the BAVC website, “SF Commons is San Francisco Public Access television, housed at BAVC since 2009. Through a grant agreement with the City [of San Francisco] Department of Technology, SF Commons is able to provide access to video equipment, a television studio, low-cost trainings and a time-slot on cable TV for any current city resident who wants to produce a show.”

The non-profit also offers digital media classes, training and certificate programs.

Mary Rudge
In October, 2013, Sujoy Sarker, the station director for Chabot TV, squared-off with then-Deputy City Manager Alex Nguyen in the pages of the Alameda Sun.

As Sarker told it, an Alameda-based producer asked to use Chabot TV’s equipment to record shows and transfer previous shows from an old to a new format.

Lacking a funding agreement with the City of Alameda to provide services, Sarker refused, but approached City of Alameda officials about the possibility of putting in place an agreement so the college could support Alameda producers.

Nguyen, who previously worked for the City of Oakland, challenged Sarker, essentially characterizing the conversation as a shakedown, and demanding a legal basis “that says we have to use their studios to create content versus handing them a DVD of content ready to air.”

Sarker fired back denying that he pressured Alameda officials to sign a contract, saying “all the producers want is a percentage of that fund to help. Chabot only wants to help. It also helps the students.”

Then-poet laureate Mary Rudge chimed in with a letter-to-the-editor, writing, “the City of Alameda has received more than $200,000 in PEG funds and not made any contributions benefiting college broadcasting to the Alameda public of the work of Alameda producers.

“For 12 years in the city of Alameda, I created television programs of ethnic cultural groups and artists that were underrepresented in commercial television. These videos are cultural and educational treasures from the ’70s and ’80s, and a community service. I produced these shows with volunteer production crews, trained when Alameda had public access stations, before the DIVCA, which eliminated all local public access stations for regional ones.

“Chabot is one of the regional centers. Chabot College is the only institution known to me with a three-fourths inch tape deck to convert these tapes to DVDs, for broadcast on their Educational Channel 27 and 28, which are the public access channels Chabot operates that serve the city and people of Alameda.

“An intern at Chabot College media center was in the process of converting these tapes for broadcast, but is no longer here due to the lack of funds that the media center at the college was to receive, which are channeled through the city of Alameda.”

In the Sun, Nguyen said he’d like to hear from Alameda producers to assess what they need to create public access programming. It’s not clear that anything became of that.

Nguyen joined former Alameda City Manager John Russo in Riverside, California, earlier this year, and Rudge died early last year.

City of Hayward documents available on Hayward’s website suggest that officials there convened meetings to discuss DIVCA and PEG co-operation with officials from Alameda and other neighboring cities as early as 2010.

Action Alameda News requested from the City of Alameda copies of any contracts for the operation of PEG channels, and has yet to receive any.

Fifteen Miles
Chabot College seems to have inherited operation of the PEG channels almost by accident through the closure of a Comcast studio in its home town, and through quick action by the City of Hayward to transfer operations to Chabot TV.

It’s true, as Alex Nguyen noted, that the City of Alameda has no legal obligation to contract with Chabot TV to provide production facilities.

And, roughly 15 miles away from downtown Alameda, the Chabot campus is a less ideal location for a video production studio than the Marina Village Shopping Center or Alameda Municipal Power’s Grand Street facility.

However, there is no evidence yet that City of Alameda officials ever solicited any bids from Chabot or any other local agency, such as the College of Alameda or the Alameda Unified School District, either of the two local Catholic high schools, or the Alameda Boys and Girls Club, to facilitate public access content creation.

As it stands today, video producers in Alameda can take ready-to-air content to Chabot TV to playback on the Educational or Public Access channels, but cannot use the facilities there to create that content.

Minutes from the February, 2011, Alameda City Council meeting show that city staff were aware that DIVCA relieves cable companies of the requirement to provide a local production studio, but there’s no mention of any discussion about funding an alternative studio.

At the current rate of PEG fund contributions from Alameda cable TV subscribers, by way of Comcast and AT&T, and barring any expenditures, the City of Alameda PEG fund balance will reach almost $900,000 next year, and top $1 million in two years.

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