Bringing the community to your screen
Across rural Southern Vermont, where distance and weather can make it difficult for residents to follow town government and forge personal connections, a mix of technology, volunteer spirit and the state's do-it-yourself ethos makes it possible for viewers to tune in on television, or on the internet, and stay connected to their communities.
They're three similar organizations with three different names: Catamount Television (CAT-TV) in Bennington; Greater Northshire Access Television (GNAT-TV) in Sunderland, just south of Manchester; and Brattleboro Community Television (BCTV) in Brattleboro. Together they serve 24 towns and communities in parts of three counties.
"We're all pretty much the same," said William Gardner, operations manager for CAT-TV, which services five towns in and around Bennington. "We're here to teach you how to learn production, to utilize our equipment to create programming - and that's really what we'd like people to do."
"Anyone that lives or works in our community can create content, and that's the beauty of the institution," said Tammie Reilly, executive director of GNAT-TV, whose three channels serve Manchester and 10 surrounding towns. "We're really all about empowering people to tell their story."
"We've tried to use technology to help people make their programming look and sound as good as possible," said Cor Trowbridge, executive director of BCTV, as she noted the two-channel operation had won yet another award of excellence from a national community media organization. "But ease of use is our number one priority."
Last year, GNAT and BCTV both won general excellence awards from the Alliance for Community Media, an educational, advocacy and lobbying organization representing more than 3,000 public, educational and government community television outlets nationally. The awards were categorized by budget, and GNAT took first place for stations with budgets between $300,000 and $650,000, while Brattleboro was judged best among stations with budgets of $300,000 or less. Three of GNAT's shows also garnered awards, including a sports talk show hosted by students from Manchester Elementary Middle School.
There are 25 public, educational and governmental access television centers in Vermont. These organizations, known as "PEGs," are funded by cable television subscribers and are allotted channels by the cable companies. The channels show municipal board meetings, school functions, forums hosted by politicians holding local and statewide office, video bulletin boards, self-produced shows from local people and other, non-commercial programming.
BCTV services Brattleboro and seven surrounding towns. Founded in 1975, it is Vermont's oldest access center.
"We don't have a lot of early programming, as they taped over the shows because they didn't have any money for new tapes," Trowbridge said. Archiving is easier and less cumbersome now because videotapes have been replaced by digital media.
CAT-TV, which has six full-time employees, sends crews to 30 local government meetings every month.
"A lot of people tune in to those meetings," said Mike Cutler, CAT-TV's creative content coordinator. "We're there gavel-to-gavel. We don't edit the meetings. We bring them back, we add a title and we play it."
GNAT-TV also has six full-timers on the payroll, along with eight part-time videographers. Their efforts to record meetings and events do not go unnoticed.
"When folks come to GNAT-TV's studio or we do a story on them," Reilly said, "they come back within a few months and say they had no idea how many people watched our channels. They say they get stopped in the grocery store and people tell them they saw them on TV."
"The meeting coverage, the governmental transparency, is important," said Trowbridge. She is one of BCTV's four full-time employees. Depending on coverage needs, up to eight part-timers also work for the Brattleboro access center. "Especially as we're going through Act 46 and these huge issues that people care about so much. There are few people who can attend a three-hour meeting on a Tuesday night."
FUNDED BY SOME, FREE FOR ALL
GNAT-TV and CAT-TV are carried on Comcast cable systems. BCTV is on Comcast and Southern Vermont Cable Co. systems, depending on where a cable subscriber lives. The cable companies collect a "pass-through fee" which is remitted to the access centers within their franchise territories.
In addition to appearing on cable, the channels are streamed over the access centers' websites. The centers also upload much content to their YouTube channels.
CAT-TV and BCTV also show many meetings over Facebook Live.
"People can comment with Facebook Live," said Trowbridge. "It's very easy to share. People know how to use that."
Cord-cutting -- the practice of consumers ending their cable subscriptions and replacing the service with television from antennas, satellite dishes, internet streaming or cable from a phone company -- has reduced the revenues of the PEG centers. The other paid providers do not collect the fee.
All three access centers will receive less from the cable companies in 2019 compared to previous years.
"They went down this year, for the first time," Trowbridge said. "Comcast did an accounting change, so it all went down the same amount across the whole state: 6 percent." She believes the demography and geography of Vermont, where many people are still trying to get cable, will slow the rate of cable cancellations.
"Cord-cutting is concerning," said Gardner, of CAT-TV, "but we feel like that's something that we can probably navigate through. We're already looking to diversify funding, adding more production services, doing capital campaigns, donations, things like that."
The funding mechanism that provides the access centers with most of their money stems from the Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984. The legislation was passed by the U.S. Congress but the Federal Communications Commission developed the rules and policies the cable companies needed to follow so they would not violate the law.
"A rulemaking was proposed last fall by the FCC that would change the definitions that are laid out in the 1984 Cable Act," Trowbridge said. "They're changing those definitions such that what we receive actually could be zeroed out by the cable companies."
The change, which would have to be approved by the FCC's board, would allow cable companies to assign a dollar figure to the channel space they give to the PEGs, as well as monetize other in-kind services. The value of these services could then be applied against the fee the cable companies charge their customers and pass on to the cable access centers.
"The FCC could theoretically end funding for PEG channels," Gardner said.
To become less dependent on the pass-through fee, the access centers have sought new revenue sources. BCTV and GNAT-TV receive subsidies from selectboards to help defray the costs of covering their meetings. CAT-TV and BCTV sell memberships, while GNAT-TV offers classes in video editing.
"We're going to have to be more of a fee-for-use service," BCTV's Trowbridge said. "Producers have been paying 10 dollars a year for unlimited access to our facilities and equipment. They're going to be paying more by the use, and that reduces access. We're not happy about it, but it's just a reality if we want to keep our doors open."
BCTV's offices are on the second floor of the Brattleboro Municipal Center, at 230 Main Street, which is the town's former high school. The studio is on the third floor, and on a Thursday morning last month, George Harvey and Tom Finnell prepared to record the 317th edition of "Energy Week," a news program about sustainable energy and climate change.
"I've been told that every public access station in Vermont downloads it, and there are a number of them in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and even California," Harvey said as the green numbers on a digital clock at the edge of the set counted up to 10 a.m. , the time they would start recording. There was no crew. The hosts selected which of the three pre-positioned cameras to include in the program by using the laptops they had with them on the news set's desk.
Through the Vermont Media Exchange, the access television centers are able to share content.
"Energy Week," produced at BCTV, also runs on GNAT-TV and CAT-TV. Many of these shared programs are placed into heavy rotation.
"We record this once a week," Finnell said. "But the station plays it at various times of day for the next week. One of those days, it could be three in the morning. The next day, it could be six at night. Sometimes it's in the afternoons. So no matter when you watch TV, it's on one of those days."
CAT-TV's offices and studio are inside 625 Main St. in Bennington. The building, built as a house in 1866 by a local family that had interests in brick-making, was later used as a funeral home. CAT-TV bought it in 2003.
"We were in the basement of the Masonic temple down the street, for many years, on a lease," Gardner said.
CAT-TV has three channels on Comcast's Bennington-area cable system: 15, 16 and 17. As Gardner spoke, in a common area of the first floor furnished with a couch and chairs, the three channels played silently on display monitors affixed to a wall. Channel 15 is the public channel, 16 is educational and 17 is for governmental programming. They run all day, every day.
"We used to have 12 VCRs and it was literally swapping tapes out during the day," Gardner said. "Luckily, those days have passed. It's automated now, and if something doesn't play, the channel switches to the bulletin board."
GNAT-TV leases space in a commercial building at 6378 Route 7A in Sunderland. They relocated from Manchester in 2011 after outgrowing the facilities they had occupied since 1997.
Reilly, the executive director, leaned on the island counter of the access center's large kitchen set as she talked about GNAT's services. Many kinds of culinary programs have been produced at GNAT-TV over the years and the set was brought along on the move from Manchester.
"The kitchen has been an integral part of our business," she said, as a dozen schoolchildren took a break from the production of a play, in another part of the studio. On the monthly "Dinner Party" program, a chef from the community prepares dishes while a host from the community emcees the show, which is recorded in front of a studio audience.
Through a grant, Reilly hopes GNAT-TV can offer citizen journalism training. "Technology has made it easier, but storytelling is a skill," she said.
"The beauty and the curse of public access is that someone can come in and want to do a show about a wool hat for an hour," she said. "And we are obligated to help them do so. But that's really the free speech part of it and that's really important."
Charles Erickson is a freelance writer and frequent Southern Vermont Landscapes contributor living in Rensselaer County, N.Y.
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