No decision yet on CCTV replacement 

Carlisle’s Selectmen at their January 23 meeting edged closer to a consensus on whether to contract with the Town of Concord to provide Carlisle programming on Comcast cable’s public access channels. Concord Town Manager Chris Whelan, dissatisfied with coverage by the current operator CCTV, has decided to take over the station as a town operation. Last summer Concord notified CCTV that the contract would not be renewed when it expires this coming September, and last month offered formally to continue covering Carlisle meetings and events. 

History

The non-profit organization now called CCTV resulted from a move by Comcast about a decade ago to get out of the studio business of providing public, educational and government access (PEG access) services to Massachusetts communities. The company promised Concord and Carlisle 4. 8% of customers’ bills (“franchise fees”) if the towns took over the CCHS studio that is the “head end” for the local public TV channels, Whelan explained to the Selectmen.

Looking ahead, Concord Assistant Town Manager Kate Hodges described Concord’s plan. The town aims to expand coverage of government meetings and events; expand community outreach by increasing the number of activities covered; train more citizens or town employees to produce programs to increase access to public TV; and offer more to high school and middle school students. A town-owned facility on Everett Street will be renovated as studio space that would be more accessible, with more parking than CCHS.

Who owns the facility?

The cost of CCTV’s studio space at Concord Carlisle High School (CCHS) is being paid through Concord Carlisle Regional School District borrowing for the construction of the high school, but the equipment there and at each town’s office has been purchased from the PEG access funds, passed through yearly to CCTV by each town to operate channels 8 and 9 and more recently 99.

On the other hand, Concord’s existing contract with CCTV says all equipment, including that installed in Carlisle Town Hall and Concord’s Town House, belongs to Concord. However, “my view is that” the equipment installed in Carlisle [in Town Hall] belongs to Carlisle and the rest belongs to Concord, Whelan said.

Staff in Carlisle or Concord?

Carlisle Selectman Kate Reid said, “We built the studio at the high school so it would be accessible to and shared by the communities, but it sounds like the public doesn’t go there.” Others agreed, noting the locked door, inadequate parking and distance from parking to the studio.

Responding to a question from Selectman Claude von Roesgen, Hodges said that “about 38 hours a week of staff time would be dedicated” to Carlisle. The employee would be based at CCHS with some time in Carlisle taping meetings or events. Noting that falling costs mean that equipment could be available in Carlisle, von Roesgen questioned how connected to the [Carlisle] community a person based in Concord could be, compared with a staff member at the school or library or Council on Aging.

Reid noted that a Carlisle studio would benefit volunteers, who would not have to “schlep down” to Concord to do everything needed. Carlisle would be free to use an estimated $20K in PEG access funds that would be left over after paying Concord to operate the station to establish such a venue, Hodges reminded the board.

For $80,000 per year, Concord would provide “approximately” 174 hours of staff time per month, plus share the CCHS studio space. Services specified in a draft Intermunicipal Agreement (IMA) Concord has prepared would include: administration and finance; managing filming in Carlisle; maintaining broadcast equipment, program schedules and on-demand programming; updating programming pages; volunteer recruitment and training; scheduling meeting coverage; taping and broadcasting Town Meetings; and evaluating new equipment acquisitions. A Concord representative and Concord’s PEG manager would also meet at least once per quarter to schedule requests for services and meeting coverage, the agreement specifies.

Alarm at government media control

Some Concord citizens, Concord Select Board members and Massachusetts Representative Corey Atkins have disagreed with the town’s takeover of CCTV. Atkins has argued that if CCTV is poorly run that is a “management issue,” but the towns’ public access channels should remain independent, outside control of any government.

  In answer to these concerns, Whelan has proposed a citizen advisory board to provide policy direction, monitor performance and “safeguard the public’s interest in community television.” According to a draft of a proposed Concord bylaw, the seven-member advisory board would be “broadly representative of the [Concord] population with diverse backgrounds and a reasonable knowledge of PEG or Cable-related programming,” and would be appointed by the Concord Select Board. Hodges later said that one representative would be from Carlisle but more could be included.

Selectman Kerry Kissinger questioned how Concord’s proposal for organizing PEG access TV would benefit Carlisle. Currently, CCTV is a nonprofit corporation with a staff of five and an independent board with two Carlisle representatives. He said that the new plan would be a town department with three to four employees, and would include a broader list of goals as well as a building to manage and a facility renovation project. How would Carlisle  influence content and scheduling without “a seat at the table”?

Carlisle alternative

Von Roesgen has worked with Somerville’s community access TV. He believes Carlisle could “go our own way,” expanding on video activities already organized at the Carlisle School and COA and editing equipment already at the Gleason Library. Usually Carlisle receives about $100,000 in franchise fees (last year $125,000). Von Roesgen suggested using these funds to increase the hours and enhance the job descriptions of existing school and library staff, instead of hiring a full-time person for public access TV.

Carlisle Board of Selectmen Chair Luke Ascolillo cautioned von Roesgen about the organization required to implement his ideas in a short period. Ascolillo said that the town would have to get buy-in from people that would be contributing, and find someone who would take responsibility and manage it. He suggested consenting to Concord’s agreement initially to see how it works out, then “potentially bring it in-house.”

Whelan said that he would like an idea of what Carlisle would prefer by April, and would have to know Carlisle’s intentions by June or July. Carlisle should decide by spring Town Meeting, because the PEG access funds should be appropriated then, said Carlisle Town Administrator Tim Goddard.

Goddard noted that the scope of services in the proposed agreement would give Carlisle more staff hours “at reduced cost to what we’ve been getting [from CCTV] with less control and less service.” He also suggested that Carlisle could pay Concord for service for a year or two, since the town could withdraw if leaders decided to produce the programming within Carlisle. Whelan asked that, if Carlisle decides “to go it alone” he be given enough time to notify the staff person designated for Carlisle.

Delay decision

Von Roesgen agreed, but said that he would like to make it clear that Carlisle contemplates a separate operation in the future. The term for the IMA discussed at the meeting would be for a total of 20 months, from October of this year to June 30, 2020, but each community can withdraw with 60 days notice.

Von Roesgen asked the board to delay deciding for “a month or so” to see if a group that is investigating how such a setup would be organized can develop a concrete alternative plan.

The Concord Carlisle League of Women Voters is holding a forum on the pending transfer on February 2 at 9:15 a.m. at the Fowler branch of the Concord Public Library. ∆