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Big plans but little money for BITV
Without a new contract, station may cut services next month.
For local TV viewers, Wednesday evenings offer a plethora of programming: American Idol. Law & Order. Bainbridge City Council meetings.
All deliver drama. And although some might give the edge to the first two shows, Bainbridge Island Television Executive Director Scott Schmidt said the popularity of local programming is stronger than ever.
We think this is going to be a breakout year for BITV, Schmidt said. This community in the next six months will have new ways to participate that theyve never dreamt of.
Podcasts, on-demand programming and an island-based newscast are among the ideas slated to roll out of the station in the coming year.
But as BITV prepares to shake things up on-screen, issues behind the scenes namely an expired contract with the city and a dearth of funding are threatening expansion plans, and could force cuts in the near future.
Specific cuts havent yet been decided on because Schmidt is hoping to reach a deal with the city soon, but that could change if nothing happens by the end of the month.
Its a reality question, he said. As of Feb. 1 we have to make some decisions. We dont have the resources to maintain this level of service.
That could mean reduced coverage of council meetings beginning in February, or cuts elsewhere.
The previous three-year agreement expired Dec. 31, but the two sides have continued on under the old terms as they negotiate.
At issue is how to divide money collected by the city through its franchise agreement with cable giant Comcast.
BITV received $147,000 from the city in each of the past three years. The city, meanwhile, excluding utility fees, collected $244,000 in franchise money in 2007, and an average of $180,000 over the three years prior to that.
BITV says the money is intended to fund its mission as a public access provider, and thus the station should be entitled to the rest of the pot. So far, the city hasnt agreed.
We contractually agreed to give them the amounts we did over the past three years, said City Finance Director Elray Konkel. I am not aware of any clause in the law that stipulates franchise fees must pass through (to stations).
Konkel said the city hopes to reach an agreement with the station soon; public discussion of the topic will resume at the Feb. 5 meeting of the City Council Finance Committee.
The city receives cable money via three separate mechanisms, but stations typically only tap into two of them.
The first of those is the franchise fee itself, which in 2007 amounted to $190,000. Of that, BITV received $120,000, with the remainder going to the citys general fund. Subscribers also pay an extra dollar each month to fund public access programming. Last year that amounted to $54,000, of which BITV received half.
Konkel said the city keeps its half of that money in reserve to make improvements as needed to the council chambers. Examples of those improvements include lighting, projection and presentation equipment and, eventually, robotic cameras.
The third source is utility revenue, which goes entirely to the city.
As a public access television station, Schmidt said, BITV faces a unique set of challenges.
Since more subscribers equals more money, the biggest hurdle is serving a finite number of households. Numbers have fluctuated slightly with changing boundary agreements, but in general the island has hovered around its current subscriber base of 4,100 households.
Many stations draw subscribers from multiple cities.
BKAT, Bremertons public access channel, has agreements with three cities and Kitsap County, though its total budget is similar to BITVs because it offers fewer services, Schmidt said.
With a budget of $260,000, BITV fills in the gaps with grants, fundraising, membership fees and money from classes offered at the station, which relies greatly on volunteers.
Service changes dont happen on a whim, Schmidt said.
Most things here have to be self sustaining, he said. Were not in a position to spend funds on a project without first having a business plan that says it will operate in the black in year one.
Still, the station has expanded substantially in recent years. Last year, BITV offered 12,000 programs, compared to just 221 five years ago.
The station recently unveiled a second channel and streaming content online, which costs an extra $10,000 but brings in no revenue. Podcasts and on-demand programming could be available in the next year, and Schmidt said he hopes to this year double the 1,000 hours of volunteer time logged in 2007.
The local newscast is the centerpiece of the stations plan. Beginning in April, the program will be produced weekly, with shorter update segments filmed and aired to supplement full broadcasts.
First, though, the station needs an updated contract. Though he knows money is scarce at City Hall, Schmidt said hes confident the two sides will come to terms soon.
Were all fighting for the same dollars, he said. The key is to do what you do best.
Our mission is unique in that it increases the number of opportunities this island has to embrace community dialogue the better off we are, the better off other organizations are as well.