Out of service?

[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.

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6 thoughts on “Out of service?

  1. Wally Bowen is correct in this letter. Mountain Express is participating in perpetuating thE myth that URTV Channel 20 and WNCCMC are one in the same. They are not. WNCCMC is merely the entity that was given the contract to manage the communities public access asset.

    Myself and others have been appealing to the City / County for over two years to consider alternatives to the present contractor. WNCCMC and it’s Board of Directors has failed as the given contractor. Why should the community lose a valuable asset because the contractor has failed and the officials allowed this to happen?

    According to L. Bradley in Tuesday afternoon’s City Financial Committee presentation, City/County are are putting out a request for proposals to come up with a new business model from the community at large. I hope someone comes forward with a viable plan.

    A progressive town like Asheville should have a thriving public access station that is a reflection of our rich and diverse culture, and shame on our leadership if we lose this asset, due to neglect, or an unconscious desire to deprive this community of a public soapbox. For too long our officials looked the other way and ignored many red flags, while this publicly funded asset was dying on the vine.

  2. Bill

    Great article Mr. Bowen. Sounds like the Buncombe County commissioners are using this chance to silence one of the last bulwarks against total corporate control of television. Thanks for clarifying what the heck is going on.

  3. Here is a link for factual background in regards to the 1987 US Supreme Court Decision regarding the creation of “PEG” channels.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public-access_television

    WNCCMC rents the studio location which is privately owned and not a publicly owned faciltiy.

    As a TV producer at URTV studios for almost 4 years, I know that the business of WNCCMC was well managed, as the audits showed.

    URTV is the best in the State and a role model for the Nation by all professional standards.

    The FCC, NC State Attorney General’s office, and the NC Dept. of Revenue, are investigating this issue.

    If public access is not re-established for the citizens use, then it appears that the US Supreme Court ruling that created PEG channels, is being violated. This is a 1st Amendment platform for the people, and as a producer, my constitutional rights of a “certified” public access, have been denied.

    The mis-representations in the media appears to be malicious, in an attempt to wrestle control from WNCCMC as the provider of “certified” public access, which is what WNCCMC was created for.

  4. Dr Milt

    I have read the John Howell reports and recommendations presented to BCBC. I have served as an elected official in this region, and if I had been handed those recommendations and reports I would have told the manager that these reports were incomplete and unacceptable (as well as inaccurate). I would have held both the manager and consultant responsible for such sub standard assessments.

    Why do a statistical assessment that does not give a complete statistical accounting of justification for the assessment? Prejudgements based on fact or manipulation of data is still prejudgements. That speaks for itself.

    Wally, I want to thank you for your comments and I would like to add that anyone who wants to know the justification for public access go to Wikipedia and enter “public access” and review. The US Supreme Court created “PEG” channels to service the decision created in 1987. There appears to be state and federal violations in this “due process” by local government(s). We the citizens are paying and will continue to pay via the NC video sales tax for PEG channels whether we get them or not! PEG channels are for the people, by the people, with the people, and should stay that way!

  5. Lasereye

    It has become obvious recently that this whole game of blaming the non-profit was a false-flag smoke screen by our local officials to censor and take away our community’s public access cable TV channel. This was done to censor our need to know among fellow citizens – especially when it came to the behind the scene machinations of local government and its impact on our community at large. It’s about citizens talking to fellow citizens who keep our government open and honest by allowing citizens to speak and be seen among their fellow citizens. How can our community be vigilant if we can’t openly speak freely among ourselves without the filters of MSM and severely edited Cliff Notes versions of government proposals and actions after the fact? Why is the community’s vigorous debate outlet provided by the public access cable TV channel in the process of being bait-and-switched out where PATV disappears from the equation? Ask yourself – who benefits – who loses from this action? We lose our 1st amendment rights to our freedom of expression to speak among ourselves on an open public access cable TV channel forum on issues and topics of concern to the community – not government’s interpretation for political posturing and advantage.

  6. glolady

    We continue to see how Buncombe County and Asheville are determined to stop the community from gathering peacefully and communicating with each other…. Between the City and County almost THREE MILLION DOLLARS was received in 2011 for video sales tax and PEG revenues…. Two Hundred Thousand was too much for the voice of the people? Spare me those who can’t count that handle money!

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