Editor's note: The following is an e-mail sent to Minnetonka city officials. The issue will be in front of the Minnetonka City Council beginning at 6:30 p.m. tonight. Hopkins council members approved the first reading of the franchise agreement last week.
The cities of Minnetonka, Edina and Eden Prairie could move tonight and tomorrow to accept the recommendation of the Southwest Cable Communications Commission to approve a franchise contract that would enable Comcast to close the access studio where we tape Democratic Visions and where other shows are produced.
There is talk of replacing the studio with a better one (good) and giving cities and school districts control over public access programming (this is not good). Public access thrives because it had been protected from the heavy hand of local and state governments and the narrow agenda's of school districts.
This would undercut the ability of minorities, hobbyists, preachers, exercise gurus, political parties, boy scouts, girl scouts and others to do their own programing and to have resonance in the age of social media and YouTube.
Have you been impressed by the way our school board meetings and city council meetings look on TV? Me neither. These are good folks but they work and live in a culture that smothers creativity, independent voices and spirits.
Please contact your respective city council members and send send them a note. I am sending the following email and will attempt to speak at Minnetonka's council meeting tonight, Eden Prairie's tomorrow and Edina's tomorrow.
JEFF STRATE'S EMAIL TO MINNETONKA OFFICIALS
To: Mayor Schneider, City Council Members, City of Minnetonka
From: Jeff Strate
Re: Motion to accept the recommendation of the Southwest Cable communications Commission to renew a franchise contract with Comcast for Minnetonka, Eden Prairie, Richfield, Edina, and Hopkins: That part of the recommendation that speaks to public access television.
I am opposed to any action that would eliminate the facility and transfer of services of the public access production studio currently managed by Comcast. I feel very uncomfortable with the prospect recommended by the commission that public access channels carried by Comcast be re-assigned to different managing entities such as a city government or school district.
I do agree with the notion that use and scheduling of the programming on the channels can be improved to benefit residents of our five cities.
I strongly urge the Minnetonka City Council to reject the commission’s recommendation and to request that the commission re-craft that portion of the proposed franchise agreement to provide for the continuing operation of that studio until a viable and acceptable replacement studio is operating for the residents of the five member cities under an authority that is independent of the authorities in a manner that is successfully done in the Northwest Suburbs, Minneapolis and elsewhere.
My comments below are limited only to parts of the Southwest Communications Cable Report on the access studio and access channels currently operated by Comcast -
Southwest Communications Cable Commission
PEG Access Needs and Assessment
May 25, 2010
The report has influenced the Southwest Cable Communications to recommend to the five city councils that the access studio be terminated largely because it is under-utilized. This report is based upon information pertaining to the studio from 2007-2009 that was provided by Comcast.
As one of the access producers at the studio, it has been my experience that the studio is busier than the report indicates. For example, I have a difficult time finding studio times that match the availability of guests. Our program, Democratic Visions uses the studio about 11 times a year.
Council members should note that:
1) The study never approached any of the access studio users with questions or solicited their perspectives;
2) The Southwest Communications Cable Commission members, since the study was presented to them apparently never thought that they needed to hear from the users; that they only needed to hear from Comcast and the other members of the Commission.
3) In concluding that the access studio is under-utilized by the public the study does NOT say why. But having listened to a few Cable Commission members, it seems that they think lack of interest in the access studio has been prompted by of the rise of new social media, YouTube, cell phone cameras, blogs and digital age technology.
They wrongly conclude that in the future, when community level people, organizations, minority groups, churches, political parties, students, special interest groups, hobbyists, performers, tarot card readers, neighborhoods, et. al.al. want to get their message out to a broader community than just their small, niche of like-minded folks that they can do it on Facebook and YouTube. There is an important function in having basic video production opportunities grounded in a professional level studio and community-wide dedicated access channels.
I have produced Democratic Visions for the local DFL Party at the Southwest Community Television access studio for the past three years. Democratic Visions has been an access program, so say veteran DFLers, since the 1980's. Programs like Republican Roundtable and BelAhdan have also been produced at this studio and its earlier versions for a long, long time.
These kinds of public, political and cultural interest shows depend on being set in a formal, well lit studio with good audio. Each of these programs presents some of the state’s and nation’s most thoughtful, noted and respected leaders and thinkers.
Some are controversial. But all of them, because of this small studio and the organizations that use this small studio, are provided a better opportunity and more time to express themselves than provided by Minnesota Public Radio, Almanac, Channels 4,5,9 and 11 and most talk radio.
When Representatives John Benson and Paul Theissen, Hennepin County Commissioner Jan Callison, Congressman Keith Ellison, Senator Al Franken and the spokesperson from a local food shelf or homeless agency came on our program, we provided them and their messages with the gravitas that they deserved.
This is not possible with a cell phone camera, a built in camera on a computer screen or a rinky dink studio set up in a classroom or the communications office in a city hall. I am certain that the producers of Republican Roundtable feel the same way when leaders like Senator David Hann and Representatives Kirk Stensrud and others visit their program.
I greatly value this studio and heartily appreciate its single manager. I was surprised that the report claims that the studio is not used much. Again, from my perspective, the studio must be booked most of the time. When I seek to reserve studio time, I learn that there are not many studio time slots available and I must do my best to find guests who can make those few times.
THE REAL REASONS WHY THE SOUTHWEST COMMUNITY TV STUDIO MAY BE UNDER UTILIZED
1) The Comcast company has done nothing to promote the service for as long as it has held the cable Franchise for our five cities. It puts up a slide only on Channel 15. That slide is in a rotation with other slides.
2) The Eden Prairie city government and School District publications, to my knowledge, have NEVER, in my 19 years here, promoted or even listed the public access studio in their respective publications and/or government and school access channels even when it was run by Time-Warner and Paragon. I do not recall any feature stories about the studio in the community newspapers or mention of it by our social service organizations. Under-utilization has largely been created by corporate and city government disinterest.
3) The Southwest Community TV Access Studio is one of the smallest and least equipped access studios in the metro area. It is not a studio that is inviting to newcomers who may be interested in producing a series. That is not to say that folks who have a one time project don’t appreciate the facility or that regular users would be happy to pay $2000 to $5000 to rent a studio for each program at TPT or some other facility.
My Boy Scout Troop very much enjoyed borrowing equipment and editing a video at the studio about 4 years ago. The program was about fishing and was taped at an Eden Prairie sporting goods store. It was delightful, provided the boys with an opportunity to be reporters, camera operators and editors with out concern that it was just for a grade. The project raised interest in scouting and was a nice promotion for Gander Mountain. Why hasn’t this happened more often? Lack of promotion.
4) The access studio has only one editing area not three as stated in the out of date report. The non-digital editing console is not inviting for newcomers and not available when shows are being taped in the studio. It is better, as I currently do, to edit at home on my computer.
The single editing console can accommodate only MiniDV video tape. Note: Consumer level MiniDV tape cameras are no longer being retailed by the likes of Best Buy, Sears and National Camera. Many such camcorders are still used by millions of people and some professionals prefer the format.
It is very difficult for users to incorporate other video mediums including 3/4 inch, Super 8, VHS and tapeless cameras unless they must jump over a number of technical hurdles they may not have time for. These older tape mediums do have important institutional, family and nostalgic importance that people DO want to assemble into a program. But, it is simply too difficult at this studio. That is unfortunate because really good work has been edited at the studio including a valuable documentary produced in the early 1990’s by former employees of the Glen Lake Sanatorium.
The two MiniDV recording and playback decks in the control room are professional grade but record only in CameraDV format -- this format has been used mostly by a limited number of professional and institutional production units and can not be played back full quality or played back at all on most consumer level camcorders or home editing systems.
The graphics production equipment is difficult for even professionals to use with confusing quirks peculiar to this particular studio.
The access studio manager does help folks to figure out how to do things. But there but there are no technicians dedicated to the studio to tend to problems when they occur.
The studio has two, cramped permanent, 1980’s vintage sets that provide few options for users. The lighting grid that hangs above the set can not be adjusted.
Two programs, Democratic Visions and BelAhdan dress their respective sets to provide their own distinctive look. These two productions can really look good, even network quality. Other programs may do the same.
As an experienced producer, I highly value this small studio -- even with its shortcomings. However, the studio's inability to stage musicians, dramas, policy forums and debates is a major factor in prompting a lack of interest in the place.
It is clear that the previous agreement between the five cities and the franchise holder did not consider these factors, or if it did, did not call for improvements or ongoing oversight.
ACCESS STUDIO TRAINING.
The training is only promoted by that slide that occasionally appears on Channel 15. There is no voiced announcement that goes with the slide … again no promotion, no effective results-driven publicity. That is a failure of the Comcast Corporation and a failure of the commission.
It is my impression that the training sessions at the studio for producing and editing are pleasant and competent. Beginners enjoy these and they are handled well. But this training is rudimentary -- just enough to complete a show that meets Comcast technical standards. Again, if that is as much as is offered, not many residents are going to use the studio even if they know about it.
Jeff Strate, Eden Prairie
Independent television producer