Community groups urge Seattle City Council to reinstate funding for public access TV

8 Nov 2010

Dear Councilmembers,

We are writing today to ask the City Council to protect communications rights for all Seattle residents by rejecting the Mayor's budget proposal to slash funding for public access television.

As you are aware, the Mayor's proposed budget would cut public access funds from their present annual funding level (in the neighborhood of $600,000 per year) to a sum closer to $100,000. This cut would replace our current cooperative model of participatory, training-focused community television, with a bleak and generic "video jukebox" model.

We believe these cuts would be a huge loss to the local communities that we represent, who benefit directly from local community TV programming, from the access to local video production training classes and facilities, and from the opportunity to develop our own cultural and journalistic media voices. Before completing this year's budget discussions, we ask you to give consideration to three community-supported arguments in favor of restoring funding for public access.

1. For Seattle's vulnerable populations of viewers and community media connectors, the Internet does not (yet) provide a viable alternative to public access TV.

Chief Information Officer Bill Schrier argues that the rise of blogs, YouTube and other social media web sites make it much less important to invest in public access television. But despite increasing access to news and information on the Internet, more people still get their basic news and information from local TV than from any other source—especially elders, low-income communities, english language learners, and other marginalized populations.

Schrier has received deserved praise for his forward-looking advocacy of a next-generation, fiber broadband network which could provide affordable, high-speed video access to all city residents. However, this plan is still an uncertain dream. For the present, and for the foreseeable future, television remains far and away the most common source of information for all people, especially low-income populations less likely to be able to afford expensive Internet connections and equipment. Indeed, the city Department of Information Technology's own studies show that people of color and low-income residents of the city are a third less likely to enjoy fast broadband than their neighbors. These local communities stand to lose the most if community access TV is defunded.

If the city does choose eventually to deploy a city-wide fiber-to-the-home broadband network, then affordable, next-generation video communications technology truly will be in the hands of all Seattle communities—and there might be a stronger case for defunding public access, and relying on other institutions for training. But that time has not yet arrived.

2. While SCAN had no guarantee of city funding past this year, this is a terrible time to cut them off, along with the communities that depend on them.

A funding cut which puts SCAN out of business, as the Mayor's budget proposes, would be a huge loss for the city—and would impact marginalized communities disproportionately. Despite its "Wayne's World" reputation for amateurish programming, public access TV provides truly essential programming for many Seattle communities. A Reclaim the Media study found that SCAN often airs more locally-produced public affairs programming per week than all local broadcast TV stations combined. It's easily the most diverse broadcast outlet in the city—because it's one of the few outlets that offers local people and organizations to create their own programming and broadcast them to their communities. SCAN has been an exceptionally rare resource for many ethnic communities, providing the only regular local programming centered on content of relevance to youth of color, Ethiopian, Somali, and Korean communities, among others.

Five years ago, SCAN was guaranteed just five years of funding through the city's primary cable franchise agreement with Comcast. The hope has been that SCAN would become increasingly self-sufficient during that time—and under current management, the nonprofit is raising some $300,000 a year in earned income. However, missteps under earlier management, and a bleak economy, have slowed SCAN's progress along this promising track. In addition, the City's Cable office has continued to deny SCAN access to a second programming channel, as called for repeatedly by consultants hired to ascertain local subscribers' needs. Additional channel space would allow SCAN more flexibility in professional, curated scheduling, would allow more producers on the air, and would give producers a stronger incentive to develop relationships with their audiences and to professionalize their broadcasts. In sum, SCAN has been hobbled by circumstances, and deserves more time to prove itself.

If the proposed budget cuts stand, it has been suggested that an outside vendor could still manage Seattle's public access channel as a kind of "video jukebox," soliciting and airing tapes submitted by local producers. In addition to other shortcomings, this outsourcing model would still eliminate what is perhaps SCAN's most important asset—its local training facility dedicated to helping local producers develop programming for community audiences. SCAN's video training courses are an essential service which allows local media makers to pursue their aspirations to create informational and cultural programs. The city's proposed cuts would leave future generations of grassroots TV/video producers without a way to develop professional skills and hone their voice.

3. The source of funding for public access—cable franchise fees—is insulated from the economic downturn affecting other revenues, and should remain dedicated to its stated purpose.

It's no secret that the city is facing huge economic challenges, and that painful cuts are the norm across all parts of the Mayor's budget proposal. However, public access is funded not out of general operating costs, but rather out of cable franchise fees paid by all local cable subscribers. These funds are much more stable than tax income and other revenue sources for the city, and shouldn't need to be raided as part of a broader budget-balancing scheme.

The Mayor's office would seem to agree, at least when it comes to the funding of its own cable channel, which is funded by the same franchise fees as SCAN. In contrast to the deep cuts proposed for SCAN, the Seattle Channel comes out great in the Mayor's proposed budget—its multimillion dollar budget survives virtually intact from last year. If the Mayor's office believes its own arguments that online video is reducing the need for public investment in cable TV, then why hasn't it sought proportional cuts from the Seattle Channel's budget? We believe that it is strongly in our community's interest for the city to continue supporting the public's channel as well—in keeping with the purpose for which franchise fees are collected.

There are many ways public access TV in Seattle can—and should—be dramatically improved. For starters, there should be two channels, to support stronger and better programming. There should be public access training facilities in central or south Seattle. closer to where community need is the greatest. The Seattle Channel and SCAN could be asked to collaborate on a scheme to encourage the best public access producers to develop their talents and professionalize their broadcasts. A necessary first step in this direction, however, is to maintain public access funding at its current level.

Yours sincerely,

Jonathan Lawson
Reclaim the Media

Oscar Rosales Castaneda
El Comite Pro-Reforma Migratoria Y Justicia Social

Estevan Munoz-Howard
Youth Media Institute

Heather Day
Community Alliance for Global Justice

Lila Kitaeff
Reel Grrls

Sharon Maeda
Spectra Communications

Tracy Bier
Upping Technology for Underserved Neighbors

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey