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Seattle Still Needs Public Access Television

The City of Seattle faces difficult budget decisions for 2011-12. Given all the budget pressure, can we still afford to subsidize public access television? The answer is yes, but given the significant changes in video and Internet technology, we should be able to do so less expensively than in the past, and with a competitively awarded contract. We need to look for a broader range of support rather than just a subsidy from Seattle's cable television subscribers.

Public Access Television These are tough budget times for the City of Seattle. We are closing neighborhood service centers, freezing salaries, laying off City employees. City libraries are losing their reference librarians, parks will get less maintenance, and we’ll be losing the Police Department’s mounted patrol unit. Utility rates will be rising.

Another change proposed in the 2011 City budget is to reduce funding for public access television. We have been spending $650,000 a year. The Mayor’s 2011 budget proposes to reduce that amount to $100,000 and also open the work to competitive bid.

A public access television channel is, among other functions, a TV studio where anyone can record a video tape, submit it and perhaps have it shown on cable channel 77 (Comcast) or channel 23 (Broadstripe). That public access channel has been operated for 9 years on a no-bid contract with SCAN (Seattle Community Access Network) television. Over this time, the City has given $7,654,546 to SCAN to operate the network. In 2008, about 750 people were certified to use SCANTV
production facilities. They produced 1,000 hours of local first-run programming
and submitted 533 hours of imported first-run programming.

If this change is handled responsibly, cable channels 77/23 will continue and the programming presently performed by SCAN will continue to be broadcast. And, indeed, much more programming could become available through more and varied sources.

Here’s how this will happen.

First, let’s look at recent history. Television has vastly changed in the past 20 years.

In 1990, the world-wide-web and Internet did not exist. There were (and still are) just a few channels for broadcast television, and it took an investment of tens of millions of dollars to put a channel “on the air”. Broadcasting over-the-airwaves TV programs required an investment in studios, $100,000+ cameras, and giant TV towers rising, for example, above Queen Anne and Capitol Hill. Also, cable television has existed for over 50 years, and has quite a few channels, but getting a video onto cable TV required lots of persistence and “connections” to convince cable executives to show your content. In those days, it was extraordinarily important that the general public, non-profit organizations and other groups have some way to exercise their free speech rights to put television programming on the air. Hence the concept of “public access television” was born – a cable channel which would broadcast video from people who do not have access to the broadcast airwaves or regular cable channels. In 2001 the City of Seattle, recognizing this, helped bring SCAN into existence so the general public could put their video stories and messages on the cable system.

Since 2001, however, video technology also has significantly changed. Today, very good high-definition video cameras capable of shooting professional-quality programming are a few thousand dollars. And simple high-definition video cameras cost about $100 and are owned by millions of people. Indeed, video cameras are now found in many cell phones.

Furthermore, there are thousands, if not millions of web sites where regular people and groups of all kinds (non-profits, religious, political) post their video. YouTube has become phenomenally popular, and even allows individual human beings and groups to create their own “channels” to reach not just the residents of Seattle, but an audience worldwide. Indeed, video clips can go “viral” and be viewed by millions of people within a few days (see list of viral video sites here). Commercial video sites such as Hulu and Netflix have become popular, and new services such as Google TV and Apple TV have come into being. Internet sites like these, where a vast trove of video programming can be downloaded and viewed anytime, anywhere “on demand” provides a significant addition to broadcast satellite, and cable programming, with a set program schedule.

Internet-based content and video posted on websites and viewed on iPads or Kindles as well as computers and TV sets are, increasingly, a significant part of the future of television.

Recognizing these changes, the City of Seattle has, through its Bill Wright Technology Matching Fund (TMF) program, funded a number of local organizations who innovate in the use of video, and help people who don’t have access to video equipment to learn how to produce films, videos and other visual content. The full list of TMF grants is here, but those grants include, for examples:

  • Multiple grants to Reel Grrls, an organization which empowers young women from diverse communities to realize their power, talent and influence through media and video production.
  • Multimedia Resources and Training Institute, which provides youth and families in Central and South Seattle with training in graphic design, video production, and DVD development.
  • Multiple grants to WAPI, Washington Asian-Pacific Islander Community Services, which includes creating a media lab at the newly remodeled Filipino Community Center. Youth learn how to set up and maintain the lab, and learn digital art and media skills. Young people also provide technology workshops for elders.
  • A grant to the Youth Media Institute, which supports students, ages 13-18, who learn and apply intermediate and advanced technology media skills; including blogging, zine making, video, photography, design and radio. They advocate for their communities, and engage additional youth in community media.
  • The City also collaborates with organizations like 911 Media Arts, which specifically envisions a future where independent voices thrive in a society that fosters diversity, innovation and artistic excellence.

Given all the City’s budget difficulties, the demand for dollars for parks and cops and human services, given the intense pressure on the City budget, given the shift in technology away from traditional cable and broadcast television to video in the Internet, can we afford to also fund a public access television channel?

For Mayor McGinn and I, the answer is unquestionably YES.

We need organizations like SCAN and 911 Media Arts and the Youth Media Institute. We need to encourage independent video production and provide facilities to encourage and train individual citizens and community organizations in the principles of professional video and multi-media production. Although people can use a $100 hand-held video camera and post content to YouTube, professional-quality video and film production requires somewhat more expensive equipment, a production facility, and training in shooting and editing techniques. We still need to provide access to cable channels for cablecasting, but we also need to understand that the Internet is now a new multi-media outlet for citizens in addition to traditional television sets connected to a cable TV system.

And we need to recognize that “free speech” as defined in the first amendment to the United States Constitution, is a right of every citizen in Seattle. But that right can be exercised in many ways, by marching for gay rights through Capitol Hill, by public comment to the City Council, by creating and writing a new media outlet like Crosscut or the Stranger’s Slog or Publicola, and by posting video to many different places, including YouTube and Reel Grrrls and the West Seattle Blog. And if free speech is important, the people of Seattle and the central Puget Sound region will step up in many and varied ways to support it, including subscriptions, contributions, grants and fees for service and training, not just a subsidy by the people who watch cable television in Seattle.

Across the State and the Nation, there are many models for government and public access television. Here is a link to the way communities in Washington State handle such access. There is no requirement under Federal law to provide for public access to cable television, and, indeed, many communities such as Tacoma and Kirkland do not provide such access at all. Although the City of Seattle has funded SCAN as its public access provider, SCAN is also broadcast on cable systems throughout King and Snohomish County, even though no other city or the County (other than Seattle) provides SCAN financial support.

Given all this, the 2011-12 City of Seattle budget proposes a new model for public access television. We propose funding that public access at $100,000, recognizing that the City also has funded many other multi-media and non-profit organizations through the Technology Matching Fund program. We also propose that, rather than simply granting another contract to SCAN or another organization without a bid, that we request proposals from the many and varied organizations in the Seattle area to provide this public access. We have an extraordinarily innovative ecosystem of new media companies and organizations in Seattle. We hope to encourage further innovation by allowing many kinds of organizations – including SCAN – to bid on this work.

We have a thriving new media culture in the City of Seattle, funded in many varied ways. With continued support from the City government and its taxpayers, we can encourage a wide variety of groups and organizations to innovate in producing content and getting their messages out not just to the City, but to the Puget Sound region and the entire world.

Here are links to more information about the City’s proposal and other background information:

  • The Department of Information Technology’s budget, with the proposed new model for public access is here, page VII-104.
  • The City’s 2009 Technology Indicators’ Report has some survey information on what people think of public access television on page 87.
  • The City’s 2004 Technology Indicators’ Report has some survey information on what people view and think of public access television on page 38.
  • When the Seattle City Council funded SCAN with cable franchise fees in 2005, it outlined the City’s expected future relationship with SCAN in resolution 30867. “The Council expects that SCAN will incrementally increase its non-City funding for operations in each of the next five years.” Elsewhere it states, “SCAN must use a portion of the City funding, up to about $70,000 per year, to pay salary, benefits, and office expenses for a full-time staff person who will devote all or nearly all of his or her time to seeking non-City funding for SCAN operations…”
  • SCAN’s website is here.