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BITV hopes to make a case for its future

Scott Schmidt is realistic about the challenges in keeping Bainbridge Island Television, the island’s public access channel, funded amidst a city budget crisis.

Still, as BITV’s executive director, he hopes the City Council will eventually recognize the community’s desire to keep the only source for local televised content viable. If not, BITV will be forced to close its doors in a month.

“For an organization that has been here for 25 years and actually promoted, served and really become a part of the city as it functions, it doesn’t seem fair to just give us 60 days to try and figure out how to stay open when most of our funding suddenly disappears,” said Schmidt. “But that’s the nature of this economy I guess.”

In mid-October, halfway through a five-year contract, the city sent a termination letter to BITV giving them 60 days notice before the contract would end. In an effort to close a deep budget gap and find lower-cost alternatives for 2011-2012, the city terminated the contract so it could renegotiate with BITV or other entities to provide coverage of city meetings within a much-reduced $50,000 budget. BITV originally asked for $300,000 in 2011 to cover community programming and city meetings.

In order for BITV to come to the bargaining table, Schmidt said, the city has to lift the $50,000 budget limit.

“We won’t just contract for only council meetings. There is no reason for BITV to do that because we are more than just city coverage,” said Schmidt. “We are willing to make significant cuts, but not completely ignore what the community has come to expect.”

In 2009, BITV broadcast 54 city programs and 502 community programs, totaling 4,682 community production hours on channels 12 and 22. BITV provided 48 educational classes and 498 local stories throughout the year.

Public access services are made up of franchise fees, which are paid by Comcast to the city at a 5 percent rate of the cable service bill, and PEG Access fees, which are paid by Comcast to the city and assessed as a flat fee of $1 per month, per customer. Franchise fees are general fund revenue and PEG fees are limited to capital expenses to improve the quality and efficiency of the educational programming.

The previous contract provided BITV with 90 percent of the franchise fees. About 70 percent of BITV’s funding comes from franchise fees through the city, and the rest through grants, contributions, memberships, sponsors and programming services.

Public-access stations are losing their funding across the country. Seattle’s channel announced this week that they will likely close if the city fails to allocate $650,000 in next year’s budget. City officials said they are reluctant to do so since the Internet provides so many free options. The Seattle Times reported 50 channels have been shut down in California alone in the last five years, according to the Buske Group, a communications consulting firm.

Bainbridge is unique, Schmidt said, because without BITV the community is unlikely to get local programming from Seattle or neighboring cities in Kitsap County.

“We have very strong community programming,” he said. “We are not producing fringe stuff no one cares about. We cover stories people like and for an island community it becomes more important because if we don’t cover it we won’t get it from Seattle of Bremerton.”

Schmidt said B News, BITV’s soft news program, is the most watched program on Bainbridge; Democracy Now, a national daily TV/radio news program, is the second most viewed program.

Although some city meetings are highly popular, he said, overall viewership ebbs and flows depending on the content of the meetings with the winter and summer months garnering few viewers.

Schmidt said BITV is the most economical option for the council meetings because the station has the equipment, expertise and procedures in place. Plus, BITV has been proactively creating a new website to accommodate video content to provide a better user experience.

It also initiated steps to connect to Kitsap Public Utility District fiber from the Comcast facility to improve content streaming. But regardless BITV needs more than $50,000 to keep going.

The city does have other, cheaper options to cover city meetings only. Bremerton Kitsap Access Television covered 144 meetings and 150 hours for the City of Poulsbo for $19,370, and a total of 308 hours of programming for $42,840.

BKAT officials said it can’t provide programming outside of city meetings, which means local content and programming would be up to Bainbridge volunteers, without as much administration as BITV currently provides. BKAT would likely use programs from other parts of the county to fill-in space.

Other coverage options the city presented include using a volunteer third-party service provider like a school or community members, or using city staff by adding 0.20 FTE to cover the meetings. City management estimated the meeting coverage could be provided by internal staff at a personnel cost of roughly $18,000.

Next week’s council study session will be primarily dedicated to budget discussions and the council’s final decisions and approval of the 2011 budget and endorsement of the 2012 budget.

Ultimately, BITV’s fate lies in the council’s decision of whether providing an outlet for community programming merits funding above $50,000 at a time when money is scare and other health and human services have been slashed to bare bones or non-existent levels.

If a contract with BITV is not revisited, Dec. 12 will be the last day for BITV programming.

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