After months of back-and-forth over changes to their relationship, Cheshire TV and the city of Keene now agree on one thing — they no longer have a relationship. Not yet clear is what’s next for community-access programming in the area, but it’s clearly a loss for the region and those who enjoyed and provided Cheshire TV’s programming and benefited from its training and other opportunities.
At this point, there’s little point in rehashing the breakdown’s causes. Suffice it to say Keene, the source of almost all the nonprofit’s funding since Swanzey ended its agreement with Cheshire TV earlier this year, grew concerned about its $181,800 annual payment and felt changes were needed in the governing structure to give Keene financial and operational control. This was more than Cheshire TV, whose roots lie in the belief that a community-access provider must be free from governmental interference, could swallow. The result: The city has now terminated its agreement with Cheshire TV, and the public access cable channels went dark on Sunday.
City Manager Elizabeth Dragon has since told The Sentinel in an email that the city’s still open to working things out with Cheshire TV. And the organization’s executive director, Dave Kirkpatrick, told The Sentinel it’s time for Cheshire TV to “take a breather,” but that it isn’t going anywhere just yet. Even so, its board of directors earlier this month had serious discussions about winding up its operations if the contract terminated.
The options available to Cheshire TV, short of throwing in the towel and dissolving, are not great and certainly won’t get its programming back on the cable system without the city’s agreement. In short, Keene holds all the cards. It collects from the cable provider Spectrum the franchise fee that’s paid by its Keene subscribers. And the city gets to designate who can provide community access service on the public-access channels Spectrum provides.
Also, under the now-terminated contract, Cheshire TV must give up its lease on the studio facilities next to the Keene Public Library and transfer to the city all equipment and other assets it has acquired over the years with the city’s funding. Without a new agreement with Keene, then, the organization will have limited funding, no home and little equipment.
Kirkpatrick rightly points out it’s a changed media technology environment, and, particularly as more residents become cable cord-cutters, there may be opportunities for a slimmed-down Cheshire TV to provide programming by streaming it over the Internet on its YouTube channel or Facebook page. A challenge, though, will be that a strong component of Cheshire TV’s support has come from an older demographic, which might not be as adept at getting and following content online.
From the city government’s perspective, a significant benefit from its agreement with Cheshire TV was the airing of City Council and other public meetings and forums. But it successfully transitioned to streaming meetings following the pandemic’s onset, and Dragon says she has already found someone else to handle the live-streaming services Cheshire TV was providing. As noted, though, Internet streaming will have less reach to the public than also making meeting coverage available through public-access cable.
Dragon also says the remaining money from the cable franchise fee that’s not used for meeting coverage will go toward future public-access projects. She reported she’s had discussions with Mayor George Hansel about creating a committee to study public-access models and possibly working with the Keene School District.
Certainly a revisioning is called for, and perhaps common ground with Cheshire TV can still be found. But it’s important to keep the “community” in community-access television, and the city shouldn’t dawdle. Cheshire TV has provided much benefit to area residents with programming beyond government meetings, including airing area school and community events, political discussions and local arts and culture performances. It has also given a forum to many for free, innovative and, yes, sometimes edgy or quirky expression. Even though the city nominally controls the purse strings on the cable franchise fee, it’s continuing to be paid by Keene cable subscribers, and they deserve community-access programming value for it.