Columbia Access Television will broadcast no more. The local public access station said it will close down Sept. 30 because of a lack of funding, according to a news release.
CAT’s original starting budget of $200,000 had been whittled to $100,000 then $50,000 and, for the past three years, $35,000. These major reductions forced the station to cut all but one full-time employee, managing director Sean Brown.
The station has been around for 15 years. In 2004, the Columbia Media Resource Alliance wanted to create a public access channel. The alliance knew that under the Communications Act, it could ask cable companies to set aside channels for free. The proposal brought to the city would also double the amount of franchising fees the city was collecting from these cable companies.
The city collected $876,315 in franchising fees in 2018 and has so far collected $208,000 in 2019, according to the city’s finance department.
From this came the contract with the city to fund CAT with the revenue earned from licensing fees. The original deal was for $200,000 annually for five years, ending in 2013. It was a good plan, but there was a loophole.
Former City Manager Mike Matthes discovered that the money earned from the licensing fees did not have to go just for CAT.
“By the letter of the law, the city could choose to just put that money into the general funds,” Brown said. “So, they are legally and completely within their rights not to fund us, technically.”
Although CAT raised other revenue through membership fees to use its equipment, class fees, media services and private donations, it is not enough to keep the channel running, Brown said.
He acknowledged that technology and the culture surrounding it has changed greatly since CAT first started.
“It used to be a lot cooler to have a channel and to put things online and that kind of stuff that people can see anywhere,” he said. “Now, you can pull a TV station out of your pocket and go live on Facebook or another platform. ... We have become a little bit of a dinosaur.”
However, he maintained the access to professional equipment and classes are what made CAT such a vital resource to the community.
“There are definitely ways for people to get their voice out there, but this was a big one for what we consider underserved parts of our community and marginalized members of our community,” Brown said. “You know, you can’t just go to any news station and just borrow their equipment or use their studio. As far as professional communication from the community, it’s just gonna be a void.”
After CAT provided its services for 15 years, Brown is satisfied with the work the station accomplished.
“We’re proud of our community,” he said, “and happy to have served it.”
Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.