CA: Ojai's Public Access May Be Closed

Posted on January 25, 2008 - 8:32am.

from: Ojai Valley News

Thursday, January 24, 2008
Ojai's Public Access May Be Closed

If Time Warner inks deal with state, it will likely be curtains for local television shows

By Nao Braverman
Public access television stations, known to feature quirky television shows with all the amateur charm of low-budget production and editing, may be heading for demise in California, and even sooner in Ojai.
Popularized by Wayne and Garth’s “Saturday Night Live” skit in the late 1980s, many such shows across the country have garnered a cult following.
Aside from the homegrown appeal of locally produced television, public access stations are still arguably a one-of-a-kind forum for public comment. Succeeding the traditional soap box, they reach members of the public who don’t read letters to the editor and are not yet computer literate.
But things are looking grim for followers of John Wilcock’s off-beat visual travelogue “Wait a Minute” and Lee Fitzgerald’s local news show, if Time Warner, Ojai’s local cable provider, decides to transfer its franchise agreement from the city to the state.
AB 2987, the Digital Infrastructure and Competition Act of 2006, allows cable companies to franchise with the state of California instead of individual cities this year. That could relieve providers such as Time Warner Cable, of the responsibility of operating a local public access studio.
Each service provider will still be required to make available the public education and government channel which televises meetings of local government, whether their franchise agreement lies with the city or the state. But the responsibility of operating that channel would then be transferred to the city by 2009.
That doesn’t change a whole lot in terms of televising meetings, according to city manager Jere Kersnar, as meetings are currently recorded and edited by a city employee. Moreover, the cable company, if franchised with the state, would still be required to provide the city with funds to cover the cost of recording equipment. But it doesn’t protect any non-government related shows currently televised on Ojai’s channel 10.
Kersnar said he did not envision the city funding the operation of a public access studio for anything more than televised City Council meetings.
“It’s an economy of scale thing,” he said. “As a practical matter I just don’t see how we could.”
Carole McCartney who coordinated Ojai’s public access station for many years before leaving the station last May, said that if the cable company was no longer responsible for local public access broadcasting and the city didn’t have funds to run one, it would have to be up to the community to make it happen.
One important asset that public access provides for Ojai is another tool for disaster preparedness, said McCartney.
“We are a small isolated community surrounded by mountains, and we need local coverage in case of an emergency.”
She suggested that if Time Warner were to stop running the public access studio, local organizations such as the Youth Foundation could run it instead with help from the community.
Time Warner still has a franchise agreement with Ojai that was extended for another year at the end of November 2007.
Patricia Fregoso, spokesperson for Time Warner’s Southern California region said that though the company has terminated franchise agreements with three Ventura County cities, and transferred their franchise agreements to the state level, it was still undecided in regards to Ojai.
“We would have to access requirements of the local franchise vs. the state’s and determine what makes the best business sense for us,” she said. She added that the existing franchise with the city was solid for another year and that no changes would be made without prior notification to the city.
But Bill Rosendahl, former CEO of Southern California Adelphia, Ojai’s cable provider before Time Warner and present Los Angeles councilman, said that Time Warner would probably toss out public access to cut costs.
“It’s generally viewed by cable providers as something they keep in order fulfill their franchise agreement,” he said. “If they can get rid of it they will.”
The law allowing cable companies to franchise with the state was preceded by another state law allowing telephone companies to provide the same services as cable, said Rosendahl. Since telephone companies could franchise with the state providing similar services, cable companies were also granted that right. Though it was ostensibly enacted in order to improve services by increasing competition, it had the negative effect of distancing providers from the communities they serve.
McCartney said that she experienced the cons of that rift when Adelphia was bought out by Time Warner, a much larger corporation. Employees were overburdened with added responsibilities and a plethora of additional paperwork.
Supervisors were less accessible and it was difficult know who to talk to about upgrading public access equipment.
“I never had a feeling that any one I was talking to was sympathetic to public access,” she said.
With a state-based franchise agreement, the gap would likely increase, said McCartney.
Things are not looking up for public access television statewide, according to Rosendahl. Some public access shows like Los Angeles’s oddball “Let’s Paint T.V” have followed the shifting tides in media outlets and moved on to the internet utilizing You-Tube, and Myspace. Wilcock has also been airing his travelogue on his own web page.
But such one-of-a-kind broadcasts are easily lost in the sea of online posts. Locally focused creators would lose immediate access to their target audience and distance themselves from community-oriented programming.
Nonetheless the tide is changing in media service providers.
Time Warner would be smart to keep Ojai’s public access services, according to Rosendahl. Only time will tell. But, as Fregoso stated, Time Warner’s decision on whether to franchise with the city or state will be made from a business perspective.