[Editor’s note: In a May 16 press release, the WNC Community Media Center (which operates URTV) announced that it was shutting down its studios to address a severe budget shortfall. And on May 20, Lauren Bradley, Asheville’s director of administrative services, said the city would be taking back its equipment within the next two weeks.]
Imagine the Asheville Tourists declaring no more baseball at McCormick Field. Absurd, right? The baseball team is a private contractor hired by Buncombe County to perform in our historic public park. Only our county commissioners could decide to close McCormick Field.
Then why is Buncombe County allowing a private contractor, URTV, to close our public-access TV channel? This channel and its production facility are an electronic public park where local citizens, young and old and from all walks of life, gather to learn digital-media skills and produce TV programs for the community.
Municipalities routinely make agreements with private contractors to provide public services ranging from animal shelters to transportation. When a contractor's performance is not satisfactory, a new provider is found.
And while Asheville and Buncombe County share responsibility for overseeing our public-access channel, the lion's share of the cable-franchise fees that support the channel are based on the county's 2002 cable-franchise agreement.
So why isn't the county seeking a new contractor to operate URTV? Apparently, the county is content with the perception that our public-access channel lives or dies with a single private contractor. Superficial media coverage of this controversy continues to feed this misperception.
A second misperception has been fed by a county consultant who blames a 2006 statewide video-franchise law for the withdrawal of county support for public-access TV. On June 15, 2010, John Howell told the county commissioners that the state Legislature “threw PEG under the bus.” But Howell's opinion is at odds with provisions in the state law that protect funding for existing public, educational and government channels (collectively known as PEG).
The effect of these provisions is evident in Chapel Hill, Greensboro and Charlotte, where support for public-access channels has grown since 2006 due to rising video-franchise-fee revenue. Likewise, revenue for our public-access channel should be rising. Instead, Buncombe County is taking revenue earmarked for public access and using it for other purposes.
That “other purpose” was revealed in an April 25 memo from County Attorney Michael Frue to the county commissioners. The memo acknowledges the 2006 law's requirement that the county devote video-franchise revenue for PEG channels “at the same proportionate amount” it allocated for these channels in 2006-07. But in a leap of legal interpretation, Frue claims, “There is no directive [in the state law] concerning division of these funds among qualifying public, educational or governmental access channels.”
This lack of specificity, he reasons, means the county can allocate all PEG funding to a single TV channel. Therefore, he writes: “County government has made the decision to distribute the tax revenue to its governmental access channel, BCTV.” His 650-word memo doesn’t specify when this decision was made or who made it.
Frue's legal opinion is weak on two counts. First, there is no such thing as a “PEG channel” per se. Federal law defines PEG channels as “public, educational, or governmental access facilities … or channel capacity.” In order for the county to devote all PEG funding to BCTV, this local-government channel would have to expand its mission to include public and educational access.
Second, the state law bases a local government's share of video-franchise revenue on the franchise agreements in effect in 2006-07. This calculation includes franchise revenue earmarked for public, educational and government channels that municipalities had certified as operational when the law took effect. Buncombe County certified to the N.C. Department of Revenue that it operated a public-access channel in 2006-07, and it has recertified this channel every year since.
The county attorney is correct that the 2006 law includes no “directive … concerning division of these funds among qualifying public, educational or governmental access channels.” But there’s also no directive allowing a local government to continue receiving revenue for a public-access channel that no longer exists.
Public-access channels typically require the lion's share of PEG funding, given their much larger mission and scope compared to an educational or government channel. And if Buncombe County refuses to seek a new contractor to operate our public-access channel, it's in effect pulling the plug on this electronic public forum and digital-media training ground for our youth. It's also eliminating an engine for economic development, small-business incubation and job creation in one of our local economy’s few growth sectors.
The county also risks losing the lion's share of the franchise-fee revenue due our community. You don't need to hire a consultant to know that the N.C. Department of Revenue isn’t likely to distribute funds for a channel that no longer exists.
— Asheville-based media activist Wally Bowen helped amend the 2006 statewide video-franchise law to preserve funding for PEG channels. He also played a key role in securing local public-access TV via Asheville and Buncombe County's cable-franchise agreements.