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March 04, 2005

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Publication Date: Friday, March 04, 2005

Can CTV survive? Can CTV survive? (March 04, 2005)

Cities rally to support, fund community television

by Jeb Bing

CTV30, the Tri-Valley's award-winning community television station that is recovering from a management upheaval, faces even greater challenges that threaten its survival. The four cities that fund and manage the system say they won't let CTV die.

The station, which broadcasts on Channel 30 and on auxiliary channels 28 and 29, has concerns on several fronts: * Nearly a fourth of all Tri-Valley homes and a larger percentage of hotels and businesses have switched from Comcast cable to DISH or Direct TV satellite service. Only Comcast broadcasts CTV on the channels it has dedicated, so the dish subscribers can no longer view CTV programming even if they want to. That means fewer residents can watch their City Council and school board meetings on local community television and there's less market penetration to attract infomercials and other client-paid programming that help pay CTV's bills. * Comcast, in its franchise agreement with Pleasanton, Dublin, Livermore and San Ramon, agreed to levy a 50-cent fee on cable subscriber monthly statements, and to turn that money over each year to the cities that collectively fund CTV30's $680,000 annual budget. With 67,975 Comcast subscribers last year, that totaled $407,850 collected by the four cities. As more Comcast subscribers move to the dish networks where there is no franchise fee, CTV has fewer viewers and less annual subscriber-paid revenue. * Comcast and the cities signed their franchise agreement in late 1999, a 10-year pact that will expire in just four years. Some officials believe it is unlikely that Comcast, now one of the country's largest cable companies, will want to stay as a collector of fees for community television in the Tri-Valley.

The cable company, already short on conventional TV channel capacity, could also pull back on designating without charge three channels for CTV. The Federal Communications Commission requires cable companies to offer only one public access channel in its coverage area, which, in the case of the Tri-Valley, is Comcast Channel 26.

There's no requirement to provide channels for community government- and education-focused systems like CTV's. Some cities, like Palo Alto and San Francisco, own and operate their own community television stations, managing just like they do their water and sewer departments, with staff directors who make personnel and broadcasting decisions.

"There's no doubt about it, we have real concerns," said Jeff Eorio, director of Parks and Recreation for San Ramon. Eorio is this year's liaison and official secretary to the CTV Board of Directors, a position that is rotated annually among the four cities.

"When you switch to dish providers, you no longer pay a franchise fee to support CTV, but you also don't get CTV on your television sets," Eorio said. "Drive around and look at the growing number of rooftop dishes and you'll also see homes that can't tune in community television even if they want to. There's no public access requirement for the satellite providers, and since they don't rely on any cabling or wiring where their customers live, the cities can't charge them a franchise fee."

This year, Comcast subscriber fees account for about 65 percent of CTV's budget based on each city's subscriber base, with the difference paid by each of the four cities. The balance of CTV's budget is covered by the cities' general funds, client-paid programming and infomercials.

What set CTV apart from other public television stations in the beginning was the determination by founders Charlotte Severin and Darla Stevens and the four cities it would serve to establish Tri-Valley CommUnity Television as a California nonprofit public benefit corporation under Internal Revenue Service code section 501(c)(3). The corporation would be governed by an 11-member board of directors comprised of eight citizen volunteers, two to be appointed by each of the four cities, and three at-large representatives selected by the board.

Severin, an artist and known for her extensive volunteer work on behalf of Pleasanton's cultural arts, headed this independent board for 20 years. Stevens, who learned video production skills as a researcher at Columbia University and produced consumer television promotions for the New York City Department of Consumer Education, served as executive director of CTV for 27 years.

Along the way, they acquired hand-me-down cameras and equipment, designed and built studio sets themselves, and enlisted the help of well-known CTV favorites, including on-air interviewer and producer Dawn Gordner, station manager Sheila Tole and engineering chief Jack Oliver.

The mellow years ended when Stevens left and the four cities and CTV board decided to beef up station production efforts to reduce its dependency on both the cities and the Comcast subscriber fees. They hired Bruce Goddard, who appeared to have good credentials in an Alameda County job that included TV production work. But within a few months, Goddard's management style and work demands collided with the mostly part-time and volunteer staff at CTV. He fired some, including Gordner, and others like Tole and Oliver quit. By year's end, with CTV staff complaints mounting and morale dipping, Goddard was placed on administrative leave. He resigned Feb. 15, with San Ramon's Eorio named interim director until a replacement can be found.

Eorio and the cities have seized the opportunity to rebuild CTV to address funding and its dish satellite competition while also downsizing its 11-member board. With fewer volunteering to serve on city committees, boards and commissions, vacancies on the CTV board have gone begging. There are only seven members now, with none for the first time from Pleasanton or Livermore.

"Eleven is just too many nowadays and we need to reduce the size," Eorio said. "That will make the board more efficient, and I hope the board members will come to that same conclusion at their next meeting. The board is the one that has to make a recommendation to change its bylaws. The cities can make that request, and that's what we are in the process of doing."

Meanwhile, with Eorio serving as CTV's interim executive director, the four cities and the CTV board are accelerating their push for a $1.8 million project that will include a new studio, expanded production space and upgraded equipment.

"The audience to which CTV provides programming has changed significantly (since its founding in 1976)," Fialho told the City Council in a report last January. "As the population has become more diverse and sophisticated, the four cities require more sophisticated programming capability and quality."

He noted that CTV's growth has been slow, but consistent, "dependent primarily on donations of used video equipment supplemented by a modest operating budget."

Eorio said the cities are using the $200,000 each received when they signed the franchise agreement with Comcast and are adding another $250,000 from their general funds to finance the CTV expansion. Already, he has approved $450,000 for new cameras, production equipment and editing decks, which will be in place later this month.

"For the viewers, this will mean a better quality picture produced on digital equipment, not tape as we have been doing," he said. "Since much of the equipment we have been using is now 15 and 20 years old, there's no doubt we will be producing better quality television as the new material is put on line."

The new studio will be in a 1,900-square-foot, two-story building to be constructed near Abbie and Second streets next to a classroom structure used for Independent Studies. Another 1,740 square feet at one end of that building will be retrofitted to add more production and administrative space.

Since the new structure will be owned by the Pleasanton school district on school district land, its design must be approved by state school architects in Sacramento, where the plans are now. Eorio said he hopes to get state approval this spring so that CTV can put the construction project out for bid. It could be ready early next year.

Assistant School Superintendent Sandra Lemmons said the facility will be leased back to CTV in a 20-year lease agreement. When completed the district will "reclaim" CTV's current studio, which is located in the Media Center behind school district headquarters at 4665 Bernal Ave.

"This new facility will allow CTV to incorporate more client-paid programming, thereby strengthening its self-sufficiency," Fialho said.

"The new studio location will also provide improved access for Tri-Valley residents, businesses and elected officials," he added. "The current site is hard to find and parking is difficult during business hours. The new location provides direct access from Abbie Street in Pleasanton, and sufficient parking is available at this location for CTV operations."

Fialho also said the new facility will be designed to meet the needs of the four cities for the next 20 years, and will allow CTV to produce shows for nonprofits and other organizations, generating additional revenue that could eventually wean the community television system off public funds and the 50-cent Comcast subscriber fees.

"Can CTV survive? You bet. We're not about to let a four-city asset like this be shut down," Fialho said.

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