Public access television is a concept that may be both loved and hated by elected officials. On the positive side, that’s the justification for them collecting franchise fees from the cable company Spectrum, which can make a big difference to a tight budget. However, with that money comes the assumption — but not precisely the requirement — that some kind of public access channel will be provided. That requires spending some of that money.
In New Paltz, public access on channel 23 is comprised of local governmental meetings, live or recorded; shows produced by residents have fallen out of favor, although public access coordinator Bob Fagan would be happy to assist anyone interested in launching a new one. Village board members in early 2015 decided that they could save money by eliminating a live camera operator in favor of an automated system, but that decision has resulted in many hours of time spent by employees trying to program the system, ensure it gets turned on and off timely, and getting the files converted into the correct formats for YouTube and cable viewing.
Later during the same meeting, a presentation was set up on a projection screen which would have been completely invisible to viewers, whether via cable or internet. Had a live camera operator been present to run the official camera, viewers at home would have had no such difficulty.
One solution, floated by public access committee chair Andrea Russo, would be to ditch the cable broadcasts entirely in favor of just using internet outlets. An alternative, proposed another committee member, Anton Stewart, is to spend more of that franchise fee to do the job right.
Stewart said he appreciated the frustration, which he said resulted from trustees inheriting a “bag of hurt” in the form of the automated system, but cutting support for the “moribund” local access channel isn’t his idea of a good solution. While he counts himself among the “cord-cutters” who no longer watch cable television, “content is still being consumed, and people still want to watch TV programs on an actual television.”
The streaming solution being considered, called Boxcast, would not solve problems regarding quality of video or audio, Stewart warned. He told trustees that they have a “moral obligation” to fully support channel 23; to do otherwise would be “thumbing their noses at the cable subscribers paying this fee.” If it’s destined for the general fund, Stewart asked, why should subscribers pay it at all?
Alternatively, Stewart said that even the frustrating equipment now in place could represent the beginning of a turnaround for the channel, which he called “moribund.” That would be the job of public access committee members to accomplish, presumably with a bit larger budget than the roughly $7,000 now allocated to that effort.
Russo also spoke, but focused instead on advising that any streaming solution should include a person designated to manage it; right now that falls to employees of the clerk’s office. Russo has been collecting feedback from residents via social media to ascertain if the service is being used, but that, to Stewart, is the wrong question.
In contrast to Stewart, village employee Christena Carp said that Boxcast would be an ideal solution due to its “intuitive interface” which would allow a staffer to decide ahead of time when a given meeting was likely to begin and end, programming the system appropriately.
Carp was asked about audio issues, and emphasized that setting up microphones and the like would, as Stewart indicated, remain a separate responsibility. While a recent planning board meeting had no audio due to a wiring issue, she said that most sound problems could be rectified by village officials simply moving the microphones very close to their mouths. None moved to do so at that moment, and throughout the meeting the microphones were often a foot or more away from each individual, indicating that if Carp is correct, viewers had to strain to hear any of the discussions.
Trustee Don Kerr, who has in the past sat on the public access committee as well as produced his own local show, agreed with Stewart that the franchise fee represents an obligation to provide some level of quality equipment and training for cable viewing on the channel.