Columbia Access Television was launched in October 2004. But without a change in city policy, it will be off the air by the end of the year.
Steve Hudnell, CAT’s treasurer, said Tuesday that the channel is down to its last $6,800, give or take a few dollars.
“We’re on our starvation budget at this point of about $2,000 a month,” Hudnell said. “At this rate, we are looking at three months left, maximum, and that’s if no unexpected expenses occur.”
Both of Columbia’s cable providers, Mediacom and Charter Communications, had been in negotiations with CAT about the financing of the channel since its inception. But a bill approved by the General Assembly in March eliminated the need for cable companies to negotiate local franchise agreements. That ended the local talks and undermined any leverage city officials might have had in their efforts to extract more support for public-access cable.
The new state law allows cable companies to bypass local affiliates and deal directly with the state. Soon after the bill passed, Mediacom and Charter sent the city of Columbia a letter saying that the negotiations would be closed.
CAT director Beth Federici said Mediacom still owes CAT $10,000 under provisions of the old franchise agreement. That amount would carry the channel through the end of the calendar year, but Hudnell said the money was due in May and that he’s unsure when they can expect it.
The task of finding a solution to the cash-flow problem falls to volunteers on the City Council-appointed Cable Task Force, which is responsible for overseeing not only CAT but also the Columbia City Government Channel and the Columbia Public Schools Channel. CAT is the only one of the three that lacks a separate funding source.
“We thought we were going to get a substantial amount of money to get to all three PEG (public, educational, government) channels,” said Marty Riback, the Cable Task Force chairman. “Instead we got no money. CAT had already started up with the idea that the money had been coming, and now they have no sure source of existence or known source of income at this point.”
The task force is taking the matter to the City Council. On Tuesday, it sent a letter to the council recommending that the city raise its cable franchise fees from 3 percent to 5 percent and that it give proceeds of the extra 2 percent to CAT. Cable companies are required to pay franchise fees to the city in exchange for the use of city streets and facilities, including utility poles.
“It’s nothing out of the ordinary we’re asking for here,” task force member Beth Pike said. “Raising the franchise fees to 5 percent is perfectly within the city’s legal rights, and it makes sense to bump it up to the national average.”
She said Columbia is the only community in the state with a cable franchise fee less than 5 percent, according to the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors.
This is the most drastic financial situation yet for CAT and the first time the panel has recommended the increase since negotiations between the city and the cable companies closed.
Federici said the fee increase would cause Mediacom subscribers’ monthly bills to rise about 25 to 50 cents if Mediacom chose to pass the increase onto its customers. She and Pike cited surveys distributed by Sue Buske of the Buske Group, which was hired by the city to study local cable issues. The survey found that 80 percent of all respondents said it was either “important” or “very important” to have cable television programs presented by Columbia residents, organizations, schools and governments.
The survey also asked how much of their bill subscribers thought should be set aside to support local programming. Choices ranged from zero to $4; the average response was $3.06.
These results, as well as the recent severity of the financial situation at CAT, make task force members optimistic that the council will respond favorably.
“I’m very optimistic that the City Council values the public access channel,” Pike said. “I think they wanted to see where the negotiations went, but now that the writing is on the wall, the council will know that they have to act.”
The recommendation could be included on a council meeting agenda as soon as July 16.
“Losing this outlet would be like closing the doors to our electronic library,” Pike said. “It’s a place where the community has been able to gather ... It’s a place where you’re going to find grass-roots democracy in action. It’s all about community. I think we’d be giving away a very important voice in our community.”