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Photograph by Curtis Cartier
Revenue-Free TV: Craig Jutson, interim director of Community Television of Santa Cruz County, says community TV is in a bad spot.

Remote Control

Santa Cruz County Community TV is in limbo as Comcast renegotiates local contracts.

By Curtis Cartier

ON THE south end of Pacific Avenue, inside the long, cream-colored hallways and clustered, video-screen-adorned studio rooms of Community Television of Santa Cruz County, you could cut the tension with a knife. Six months past the deadline, Craig Jutson, the studio's happy-go-lucky interim director, hasn't been given an annual budget yet. Instead he's been given access to funds on a quarterly basis and is staring at a cut-off date of Nov. 30 unless city and county leaders approve another few months of financing for the shoestring studio. Jutson, along with producers, actors, camera technicians and informed fans of CTV, are all holding their breath, waiting for a sign to emerge from the closed-door negotiations between the city and county of Santa Cruz and Comcast for a sense of what may be the fate of Channel 25.

"We're all hoping things will work out and we'll keep getting our funding," says Jutson, a cheery former producer and technology whiz who takes the "interim" in his title very seriously. "It's a complicated issue. We just don't want to end up like some other cities [in California] that have lost their community television stations."

Jutson's assertion that "it's a complicated issue" is a vast understatement. The decades-long relationship between Santa Cruz County and cable television is a sordid one that includes breakups, makeups, anger, frustration and general drama, which, if turned into an actual television show, would stretch painfully on for at least a dozen seasons. A few facts, however, are abundantly clear.

First and foremost: the franchise agreement between Comcast and Santa Cruz County is expired. On the table during the ongoing negotiations is the issue of rates that Comcast can charge customers, and also how much they will contribute to public access television. CTV receives 88 percent of its funding, or about $780,000 per year, from Comcast through the "franchise fee" that shows up each month on Comcast customers' cable bills.

That fee is a sore spot in the relationship between the county and Comcast, especially since cable's biggest competitors, Direct TV and Dish Network, are exempt from having to charge it. County and city negotiators worry that Comcast will try to minimize the fee or get out from under it altogether.

Andrew Johnson, vice president of communications for Comcast, says that isn't so. Johnson says that, "though we'd like to," his company doesn't have the power to reduce the amount charged and collected for franchise fees. "We just write the check. And we'll keep on writing that check," says Johnson. "What they do with it is up to the county and city [of Santa Cruz]."

Pat Busch, the county's chief negotiator with Comcast, disagrees. He argues that every part of the contract between the county and Comcast is up for grabs, including the amount in franchise fees the company charges and ultimately forks over to CTV. He and others contend that if Comcast doesn't get the higher basic rates that they're after, they could make up that money by reducing the franchise fee and replacing it with higher rates.

"The point is, the franchise agreement is expired," says Busch. "The funding they provide [to CTV] is no longer contractually guaranteed. We're in a period of great uncertainty."

Busch adds that he "doesn't anticipate a stop in funding [to CTV]" but that whatever agreement is eventually hammered out will certainly have an effect on the station. For local producers like Richard Dussell, who produces the music heavy variety show Look Mom, I'm on TV, trusting the cash-strapped city and county of Santa Cruz and a profit-oriented cable company to keep doling out cash is an exercise in blind faith.

"This is a scary time for community TV," says the jovial producer, while helping set up microphones and cameras for local jazz trio Organasm to tape a live broadcast. "Comcast is a business. They're going to do whatever makes more money. We would definitely lose a valuable public service if [CTV] is shut down."

Off the Air
Providing the backdrop to the entire negotiation process is the passage of the Digital Infrastructure and Video Competition Act of 2006. The act allows cable companies like Comcast to wiggle out of local franchise agreements with cities and counties in favor of partnering on a broader level with states.

The law was sold to state legislators as a way of increasing competition and driving down prices. What it's actually accomplished, however, is to eliminate the bargaining power of small municipalities, and, arguably, has led to the closure or significant downsizing of 70 community television studios around the state, including in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Richmond.

Thanks to a temporary exemption from DIVCA carved out by former Assemblyman John Laird, however, the county of Santa Cruz will retain some form of local franchise for at least another four years. The question of how much of a fee Comcast customers will pay for that franchise is what's at issue, Laird and others say. And since all but a few pennies out of every franchise fee dollar goes straight to CTV, fans of public access television should view a cut in franchise fees as exactly what it is: a cut in community television funding.

In the meantime, viewers can still flip to Channel 25 and count on a steady stream of music videos, talk shows and comedy skits, all stamped with Santa Cruz's unique brand of weirdness. But the question "for how long" is growing to a din, and unless negotiators loosen their tongues, it will be an ear-splitting clamor by the time an agreement is finalized.

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