NCTV to Launch Citizen Journalism Project; Pushes Comcast to Open Third Cable Access Station
NORTHAMPTON — Al Williams, director of Northampton Community Television, plans on putting dozens of flip cameras — that is, cheap, easy-to-use video recorders — into the hands of ordinary people next year, and teaching them the basic arts of citizen journalism and storytelling.
The citizen journalism project is just one of the goals set by NCTV, the city’s community access television station, for 2012. (View NCTV’s annual report here.)
Williams spoke Wednesday night at an annual performance review of NCTV and Comcast Cable, held by the city’s three-member Cable Advisory Board.
NCTV is an independent non-profit with its own board of directors. According to the terms of a ten-year contract between Comcast and the city, the station receives a percentage of Comcast’s revenues generated from its Northampton cable customers. Last year NCTV received close to $180,000 from Comcast.
NCTV is best known for televising government meetings, including those of the City Council and School Committee. But the station is also committed to training anyone who’s interested in learning how to produce television and video.
Williams said that in the past three years, demand for the use of the station’s equipment, including video cameras and computer editing stations, has increased dramatically.
“Our goal is to create a community of media producers,” he said. “We want to be as welcoming as possible.”
Public-access television was created in the late sixties by the Federal Communications Commission and mandated under the Cable Communications Act of 1984. Comcast’s 10-year contract with the city was signed by former Mayor Clare Higgins in 2006 and will be up for renewal in 2016.
In addition to its public meetings, the station features popular shows such as Democracy Now, White House Weekly and Valley Homegrown (a live music show) and a host of weekly and one-off independent productions. (The station’s program guide can be found here.)
NCTV Wants Third Channel; “Fish Time” Doesn’t Count, Says Comcast Rep
The interpretation of the city’s contract with Comcast is now in dispute in at least one area.
NCTV wants Comcast to open up a third public access channel, said Williams. Currently, NCTV broadcasts on channels 12 and 15.
The contract seems to promise the city a third channel if and when NCTV produces 25 hours of original programming per week over the course of six months. (The key provisions of Comcast’s 10-year renewal license can be viewed here.)
Williams said NCTV had met that standard, and that Comcast was dragging its feet in giving the city the additional bandwidth.
Steven Fitzgibbons, Comcast’s manager of government and community relations, said that “Fish Time,” a live-streamed aquarium show, shouldn’t figure into the equation when adding up the hours of locally-produced television.
“Fish Time doesn’t count,” said Fitzgibbons.
According to records, NCTV ran 2650 hours of original programming in 2011, exactly meeting the standard outlined in the contract for a third channel. 278 hours of those hours were devoted to Fish Time.
Williams noted that he and Fitzgibbons are in “fundamental disagreement” about how the terms of the contract should be interpreted, and asked the Cable Advisory Board to intervene. “We need more than just me at the table,” said Williams.
Councilor-elect Bill Dwight, a member of the NCTV board of directors, said it’s not up to Comcast to say whether or not Fish Time qualifies as locally-sourced programming under the terms of the contract.
“What we choose to program is what we choose to program,” he said.
Fitzgibbons quipped that NCTV may have met the letter of the contractual language, but not its spirit, but added that he’d be willing to meet with the advisory board to discuss the matter.
Williams said NCTV could put the contested third channel to use right away as a program guide for the station.
In a telephone interview Williams said that NCTV is due the extra bandwidth, and that procuring the extra channel now is key to the station’s medium and long-range planning.
NCTV is a so-called “PEG station” — meaning it serves a public, educational, and governmental mission. In one scenario, each of those functions could be assigned to its own channel, said Williams.
As for Fish Time, Williams said that as NCTV’s league of citizen journalists and TV producers grows, those hours will fill up quickly. Plus, he said, there’s a lot of great content available — classic movies, documentaries, and the like — that can be run once the third station is secured.
“Infrastructure and bandwidth are essential if we’re going to increase the quality and quantity of our programming,” he said. “We’re here to serve the public.”
And apparently the aquarium-cam has its fans. “I love Fish Time,” said Florence resident Annie Thompson on Friday. “And my cats love Fish Time, too.”
© Northampton Media
Mary Serreze can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org