Any lingering doubt that no future remains for Cheshire TV as the local community access station was dispelled last week when its board voted to explore restructuring as a scholarship organization. It’s a sad development for community programming in the region and makes it even more important that the Keene city government push ahead its planning for public access projects.
Cheshire TV got its start some 15 years ago when the city designated it the community access provider for the public-access channels on the cable system in Keene, now Spectrum. There were issues over the years, but Cheshire TV was able with city financial support to provide public-service programming to cable subscribers and to give community individuals and groups the chance to produce and air their own programming. By the time the relationship ended, Cheshire TV was receiving more than $181,000 per year under its contract with Keene. Cheshire TV also at times received funding in much lesser amounts from Swanzey and Marlborough, where Spectrum also provides cable service.
The relationship broke down earlier this year when internal dissension among the members and board of Cheshire TV led Keene City Manager Elizabeth Dragon to demand the city have a greater presence on — indeed, control of — the station’s board. That proved unacceptable to Cheshire TV, and the city terminated the contract in late May. Dragon said at the time that the city remained open to working things out with Cheshire TV. But, given the gaping philosophical divide between the city’s insistence on control and the station’s desire for independence, the end seemed clear.
When the contract ended, Cheshire TV’s then executive director, Dave Kirkpatrick, floated the possibility of streaming its programming over the Internet. At last week’s board meeting, it was clear that’s not in the cards. Instead, rather than just dissolving the organization, its board voted to explore providing financial assistance to help educate high school students interested in TV production or related fields. That would be a promising use of its remaining assets, and it’d be even more so if it could also be structured creatively in some fashion with Keene State College or River Valley Community College’s Keene operation.
Meanwhile, the fate of local community access programming remains unresolved. The amount Keene had been paying to Cheshire TV is indirectly funded by the city’s cable subscribers, who pay a monthly “franchise fee” that’s tacked onto their bills, which Spectrum turns over to the city under its cable franchise license from Keene. That amounts to more than $200,000 from Keene’s cable subscribers annually, and the city owes it to them to see they are provided continued community-access programing now that Cheshire TV is — quite literally — out of the picture.
An important benefit from Keene’s relationship with Cheshire TV was the airing of City Council and other public meetings and forums. Dragon says that Keene has entered into part-time staffing arrangements to enable city meetings to remain accessible via television. That’s certainly good news, particularly for cable subscribers who might not have adequate Internet bandwidth or technology to access the web streams.
But Cheshire TV also provided much more programming than meeting coverage and, in particular, gave residents and others opportunities to put the “community” in community access television. Right now, except for a few public-service notices and a note from the city that “Public, Education, and Government programming activities are in transition,” the public access channels are dark. Dragon said last week that work continues on a plan for using the remaining cable franchise fee amounts for public access projects, and it will be a challenge to craft a plan that allows community participation that’s free of unwarranted city oversight. No doubt, cable subscribers and the various groups and individuals who found a community forum for broadcasting their discussions, events and other programming look forward to seeing that plan, and they should have the opportunity to weigh in on it.