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Video Pay Per Cut

two TV guys
Robert Scheer

It Tapes One to Know One: With Community Television of Santa Cruz County's tightening budget, "What's Next?" producer Bret Harders (right) and assistant Dan Elder may soon pay for use of the public-access station's video editing suites, which currently are free.

Local noncommercial TV's free days may be numbered

By Michael Mechanic

Community television of Santa Cruz County opened its doors 19 months ago with lofty ideals. Under a 1992 franchise agreement between TCI Cable and the county, CTV runs a public-access video production facility and cablecasts public, educational and local government programming on Channels 71 and 72.

Unlike many public-access stations, where individuals must pay for use of equipment or even to have their finished work broadcast, the local facilities--apart from dues of $10 a year--are free, and therefore available to all producers, regardless of income. Until recently, programming has been almost entirely noncommercial and completely uncensored--comprising free speech in the almost literal sense.

But Community TV has expanded--and expended--at a clip faster than its modest endowment can accommodate. Consequently, some of the station's high ideals are showing cracks.

In recent meetings, CTV's board of directors has debated cutting back services or charging producers for training and use of equipment. And, in a move that has generated some annoyance among die-hard anti-commercialists, station management and board members have stepped up the pace of corporate underwriting--in which companies receive on-air mentions in exchange for monetary support.

Although the station must develop new revenue sources, some supporters worry that the new proposals could compromise the quality and integrity of local public-access programming.

"I think they should just cut their budget and do less," says Clay Butler, co-producer of the award-winning Bill and Clay Show, which appears weekly on Channel 71 and is the epitome of what is possible on a shoestring budget. In addition, Butler also is the creator of "Sidewalk Bubblegum," a cartoon that runs in Metro Santa Cruz. "I couldn't do the Bill and Clay Show if they charged $5 an hour for editing time. They may think $5 sounds cheap--and it is--but these shows are a labor of love and to charge for editing could make the difference between a show being on or not."

Boardmember Alan Holbert says he is sympathetic to such concerns. "But the board can't be out raising money all the time to offset costs," he says. "The station needs to be as self-supporting as possible."

While one proposal has been to charge only for the most advanced equipment, like CTV's nonlinear computer editing system, Holbert considers this elitist. "I'd rather see an across-the-board charge for all editing, so everyone has the chance to use the advanced equipment," he says.

Board Chair Tom Kwai Lam says low-income producers may be able to do volunteer work at the station in lieu of fees. "I don't think anyone wants to charge for equipment," he says, "but we need to either figure out how to spend less money, find other ways of generating revenue or charge people."

Surgical Tubing

CTV's operating budget comes from a monthly surcharge paid by TCI subscribers, which bagged the station about $343,000 last year. But despite modest revenues from other sources, CTV ran a small deficit. The board hopes to halt any deficit spending, which would ultimately deplete the station's reserves.

Another area of concern is the station's rate of capital expenditure. In 1994, CTV received a $500,000 grant from TCI to cover purchase and replacement of equipment over 20 years. In just two years, CTV has spent more than 60 percent of that, leaving the station only $194,000 to cover 18 years of equipment replacement, while still fulfilling its goal of keeping up to date with new technology.

"It's going to be a real challenge," says Kwai Lam, "especially since the lifetime of equipment is typically three to seven years, and field cameras are on the lower end of that scale. We haven't finished equipping everything, either. There's still a significant amount we haven't spent."

Maintenance, too, is no small consideration for a public-access station, where equipment is used constantly by large numbers of people, many inexperienced. "Maintenance and replacement of equipment has been a higher figure than we anticipated," says CTV On-Air Coordinator Ron Holman. "There's a great deal of guesswork in establishing budgets for a start-up organization, and perhaps some of the guesses weren't accurate enough."

If anything, however, station management appears determined to boost expenditures to keep up with the demand for services. The budget approved by the City of Santa Cruz and the county for the new fiscal year calls for a 23 percent spending increase. CTV Executive Director Laura Greenfield proposes to balance the budget by raising annual membership fees to $25, charging for equipment and training, and boosting underwriting.

Although a cash cow for publicly funded TV and radio stations--underwriting spots sell for $10 to $20 on local radio stations KZSC or KUSP--public-access stations are just now looking to this form of corporate sponsorship as a revenue source.

Under CTV's original rules, acknowledgment of a benefactor was a staid 15-second affair. Over a still shot of a restaurant's exterior, a voice might say something like: "Support for this program was provided by Lupe's Cantina of Aptos, serving family-style Mexican food since 1984."

With such lusterless acknowledgments and relatively small audiences, a business might buy underwriting to show support, but probably not for real marketing purposes. Nor did CTV make an effort to sell, pulling in just a fraction of its goal of $3,000 for the past fiscal year.

Public to Profit

But Greenfield and the board have taken ambitious steps. The station has hired an underwriting coordinator to sell spots on a commission-only basis, and Greenfield projects income of $44,400 to $70,000--more than 100 times last year's take. The board recently voted to relax the stiff underwriting rules, instead adopting guidelines used by San Francisco public station KQED.

While the new spots--which sell for $5 to $20--are still only 15 seconds and less-than-flashy, they resemble the low-budget commercials one might see during newscasts on the local Fox affiliate. Owners are allowed to speak for their business and submit pre-produced tapes. Products may be displayed, though they may not be shown in use, and more moving pictures are allowed. The effect, although perhaps not intended, is a far cry from what was previously permitted.

"I've had people in the community complain to me that they look like commercials, and they don't like it," says Tom Karwin, former chairman of the Cable Advisory Commission, which advised local government on community use of the cable network prior to CTV's existence. "We ought to be concerned about the appearance of commercialism. The board needs to look closely at the current guidelines and look at some examples of the spots and determine whether they feel that is reflective of what the community wants."

Kwai Lam notes that the underwriting spots may demonstrate to some viewers that CTV is valuable and worthy of their support. "Some people may say Community TV sold out, but others may say that Community TV grew up," he says. "I'm hoping people will judge us on what's between the spots and what we're doing for the community."

Kwai Lam points out that corporate sponsorship is unlikely to affect programming, since, unlike commercial or regular public television, the station management has virtually no control over program content. But appearances are another issue. Could CTV become the "Chevron" or the "Pepsi Station," or will underwriting be limited to local companies?

"I don't think a position has been taken on that," says AC Smith, who sells the CTV spots. "My feeling is that I'm more familiar with local businesses, and because CTV is so community based, that's where I would expect to find support."

Holman adds that the station may begin running the underwriting spots on a smaller screen within a Community TV graphic to make them appear less like commercials.

Butler plans to make his own statement by lampooning CTV in a Bill and Clay "Underwriting Special" next month. Butler sees underwriting as an addiction. "I think for a public access station to get into the idea that advertising is a part of the budget to count on, I think it can only hurt programming in the future," he says. "With a paper, how many ad dollars you get in a week determines how much you can publish. I'd hate to see that with public-access TV."

Members of the public who want to comment on recent developments may attend the CTV board meeting on Aug. 22 (5:30pm) at CTV's headquarters, 816 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz.

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From the August 15-21, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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