Channel surfing has become an American past time. You never know what you are going to come across during those commercials that interrupt whatever you were watching. But, you won’t be running into any of those independent productions made by your friends or neighbors that were cablecast on Channel 33 anymore. The Fridley City Council voted not to renew the annual agreement with ETC Fridley Communications Workshop last January 25, 2001. The last live program from the public access studio was cablecast as we moved our offices out of the cable company’s building six days later, on January 31st.
For those of you who received copies of Fridley’s 50th Anniversary booklet, you can read about the beginnings of cable television in an article entitled “The History of ETC Fridley Communications Workshop.” This article was originally written as Part I in a series for the Workshop’s newsletter, “Videosyncrasies”, which is sent to all of the Workshop’s members. The beginnings of cable television in 1972 were as contentious then as they are even now, over twenty-five years later.
To recount a little of the history, the Anoka County Communications Workshop was incorporated in 1975 as a non-profit 501(c) 3 educational organization. At that time, we envisioned the surrounding communities eventually sharing facilities for public access, but Fridley has remained an island. Isolated from neighboring franchise service territories that banded together without us, Fridley never received the multi-millions of dollars for state of the art equipment and production staff that came with the larger franchise commitments.
In 1979, the City of Fridley and the Workshop entered into an agreement, which was granted on a yearly basis, for the Workshop to facilitate, encourage and promote the use of public access on the Fridley cable television channel. Funding for the Workshop came from the franchise fee; this is based on the revenue received by the Cable Company that is paid to the City. The Workshop received approximately 40% of the money, leaving 60% to be spent by the City on cable related expenses, such as the cable commission and government channel. During the twenty plus years the Workshop operated public access, there has been one full-time and one part-time staff member, making access to the studio, edit room, and portable equipment available for 12 hours a day, generally from 9am to 9pm and weekends when classes were scheduled.
Nevertheless, the Workshop received the National Federation of Local Cable Programmer’s Community Communications Award in 1986 for “longevity of operation, diversity of producers, quality of programming and service to the community. ACCW serves as a model community programming operation for small communities.”
Under federal law, if the Cable Company operating within the City paid 5% of their operating profits from the cable franchise to the City, these funds had to be spent only on cable-related activities. The other option was for the City to receive 3% of the profits with no provisions attached on how the money could be spent. The Cable Television Act of 1992 rescinded the requirement whereby the funds had to be spent only on cable-related activities, but the Fridley City Council voted to adopt an ordinance retaining this requirement.
Beginning in 1998, the City Council began to question whether the funding for public access was worth the programming that was being produced. The confusion in the difference between local origination community programming (community-based productions and production staff operated solely by the cable company) and public access programming (citizen non-commercial productions with staff assistance funded by the Workshop) persisted. Besides the yearly request for operating funds, the Workshop submitted a request for funds to upgrade the equipment, which had not had any replacement for five years – a long time in the world of video. The 1998 operating budget was approved, but the funding for equipment was held up, although Paragon Cable released $80,000 for equipment to the City in January of 1998.
In mid-summer, 1998, the Workshop’s full-time director and part-time access coordinator both resigned in order to pursue other interests, leaving the part-time financial director. The Board of Directors, which is comprised of nine volunteers who oversee the Workshop’s activities, decided to renovate the entire facility before hiring a new director. Twenty years accumulation of used furniture, old props, and outdated files were cleared out; the office, library and edit room were cleaned and painted. A new director was hired in September and began making contacts with the community.
Some City Council members continued to question whether the funding for the Workshop was a waste of the franchise fee money. Dennis Schneider, former councilmember, pointed out the City ordinance still in place requiring that the franchise fee funds, which total over $100,000 a year, be spent only on only cable-related activities.
A request was made for a proposal from the Workshop to detail how more and better public access programming would be accomplished in 1999. A detailed plan was submitted by the Board of Directors that included contacting non-profit organizations, schools and civic groups on a monthly basis. Also, Workshop staff would be assigned to videotape programs in the community, normally a responsibility of the cable company’s local origination channel staff. Councilmember Rick Wolfe made arrangements for Workshop staff and volunteers to start an on-going videotape project featuring the high school volleyball games. Upgrading the outdated video equipment with the $80,000 grant from cable company funds, as provided for in the franchise agreement with the City, was an essential part of the plan.
At the January 25, 2001 City Council meeting, the Council voted 3-2 (Barnette, Billings, Bolkcom vs Jorgenson and Wolfe) not to renew the agreement with the Workshop in spite of the plan that had been submitted. An inventory of equipment was ordered for the next week and the Workshop staff and furniture were moved out of the cable building where office space had been provided by the cable company since 1979.
The City entered an agreement with Paragon Cable to provide public access for an interim of three months while they solicited a Request for Proposals from a group or individuals interested in providing public access for the City. Mayor Nancy Jorgenson questioned the policy of having the cable company in charge of public access productions. Restrictions were put in place limiting productions to only Fridley residents as producers on the all-volunteer, non-commercial productions. The only channel now funded by the City is Municipal Channel 35, which shows the City Council meetings.
The videotape library of over 600 tapes was stored as a public access library resource; the new restrictions prevent cablecasting any tape unless only Fridley residents were the producers. Viewers will be restricted to seeing only Fridley public access productions under this policy.
At the present time, public access hours have been cut severely – they consist of one evening a week, from 6pm to 9pm. A written proposal for programming must be submitted to the cable company staff. There is one part-time Paragon staff person to facilitate access and do outreach to the community. Councilmember Steve Billings questioned whether it was “our job to go out and encourage use of access.” - this was the status of public access as of January 2001
The cable franchise in Fridley is now held by Comcast Cable. The cable building in Fridley has now been closed for several years. In essence there is no public access in the city where the first Minnesota non-profit public access entity began. If a citizen of Fridley wants to show a public access program their only course of action is to call Comcast, the cable provider, and see what happens. Here is some information about Comcast's approach to public access:
So good luck with public access in Fridley. If Comcast holds the franchise in your area --beware, the Big (Media) Bad Wolf is at the door.
ETC Fridley Communications Workshop continues to operate as a non-profit organization with the following goals:
a. to promote Freedom of Speech; b. to promote the use of a free speech forum through the use of public access and the internet; c. facilitate, promote, coordinate and assist in public service community programming of benefit or interest to the members of the Fridley and world community; d. to inform and educate the members of the community of the potential uses of communication benefits which public access and the internet can provide to Fridley and world community; e. to provide information about training and technical assistance that will help the members of the Fridley and worldwide community realize the potential of cable television and the internet as a source of noncommercial communications; e. to provide a resource center for information, materials, and programming; f. to promote non-commercial citizen use of video.
The Board of Directors continue to meet to preserve the spirit of ETC through ETC33.org. The ETC web-site will keep community members connected and informed.
But the RFP process is over. The City Council has decided what Fridley will receive in the way of public access services. Other public access entities, keep your guard up. For assistance with your public access concerns, and to voice your opinion on the current state of public access, contact:
ETC 33 - The Workshop (aka: Fridley Communications Workshop) E-mail: ETC33@ETC33.org Web-site: www.ETC33.org January 2001 update May 19, 2008
A people which is able to say everything becomes able to do everything.
Napoleon Bonaparte 1769-1821, French General, Emperor