Cheshire TV is facing an existential threat. The overarching issue is control of the operation’s board of directors. But as is often the case, the arguments largely revolve around money.
The city is by far Cheshire TV’s biggest benefactor. Under the current agreement, Keene pays Cheshire TV roughly $181,000 annually. The town of Swanzey has added another $46,000 or so — or at least, it did until ending its relationship with the group earlier this year. Cheshire TV also raises about $9,000 through its own means.
Executive Director David Kirkpatrick and former director Lee Perkins believe the money the city provides is actually the organization’s birthright, that it should go directly to Cheshire TV without the city government’s involvement. They also argue they should be getting even more.
The problem facing Cheshire TV — and therefore, those who enjoy its programming, training and opportunities — is that it’s unlikely they’ll get all they want. And getting part of it, namely the city decoupling from the operation, will benefit Keene financially, and Cheshire TV not at all.
As cable customers know, every month they’re paying Spectrum what’s called a “franchise fee.” That amounts to about $206,000 in Keene annually. The money, by federal law, is then turned over to the city. It’s actually what Keene charges Spectrum for the use of public ways.
Perkins and Kirkpatrick contend the money is actually intended to go to Cheshire TV to operate what are called public access, education and government, or PEG, stations; what people generally call community access stations.
They’re correct that that was indeed the intention of Congress at one point. The law gives municipalities the ability to charge cable firms up to 5 percent of revenues for access to the streets and other public infrastructure, with the option of then using that money to fund local PEG operations. In its current franchise agreement, the city has set the amount at 3.5 percent.
So, yes, the money comes from cable subscribers. But only because Spectrum charges them for what it would be paying the city. And in some cities and towns, the agreements are structured so the franchise fee goes directly to the local PEG station operator. That’s a choice.
As it’s structured in Keene, if the city terminates its deal with Cheshire TV, which it has announced it will in May, the money simply stays with the city. Cheshire TV gets nothing.
In a radio interview this past week, Perkins called this possibility “an armed robbery” of Cheshire TV’s rightful funding. Kirkpatrick went him one better, likening it to an abduction at gunpoint, where the city was ordering Cheshire TV to “get in the van.” Yeesh.
To make matters worse for Cheshire TV, its well-appointed studio in the renovated Heberton Hall is leased from the city, which also owns much of the equipment there.
But the real issue here is the future of the Cheshire TV board. Under the group’s bylaws, the 12 members are evenly split between those elected by the group’s members — a designation open to pretty much any adult who applies — and seats appointed by the city, school district, and other stakeholders.
Perkins claims Cheshire TV is an exemplary model, admired across the nation. But in recent months, the organization has had a very public meltdown, in which the board fired the executive director who had replaced Perkins in 2014, Mark Nelson, and Kirkpatrick, a longtime producer; a city councilor stepped away from his board position “in disgust”; and a coup began fomenting that resulted, in January, in the group’s membership — led by Perkins and Kirkpatrick — ousting five board members, including the chair.
The new board named Kirkpatrick executive director. And how were those board members picked? According to Kirkpatrick, “The way I found our (current) board is, I went to our members, and I said, ‘Will you do this? Will you step up?’” In other words, he picked them. Then they picked him.
An exemplary model.
The whole fiasco led Swanzey to refuse to re-up its deal when it expired, and Keene is doing the same, giving 120 days notice.
Keene City Manager Elizabeth Dragon, in her own radio interview, said she hopes the stations will continue. She’s offered a new structure under which the city and Swanzey, based on how much they contribute to the operation, would choose the board’s members. The board would then control the staff and set policy.
That seems to us far too intrusive. As Perkins has noted, having local governments running PEG stations can lead to questionable levels of control over content and actual access. Cheshire TV’s bylaws actually forbid city employees or officials from holding seats on the board or working for the organization. The idea from the start was that the city wouldn’t control the operation.
On the other hand, given recent events, it seems those paying the freight have reason to want some degree of oversight.
Kirkpatrick says even without the city space and equipment, or its funding, he could operate the group. Our bet is such a scenario would be hugely scaled back, at best. He’s also said if he did so he wouldn’t cover city and school meetings — the P and E in PEG — unless they paid for it separately. That wouldn’t benefit the community in any way. Nor would having the city effectively pull the plug on Cheshire TV.
What would? Well, for starters, having the City Council lay out the options and hear the arguments in public. This is something Perkins says he and Kirkpatrick want, but Dragon and Mayor George Hansel have opposed. We’d guess the city officials would be fine with it as long as the Cheshire TV duo stop with theatrics such as saying “We won’t get in the van!” on the radio.
Compromise is clearly needed. Cheshire TV doesn’t belong to the city government that funds it, but neither does it belong to those who man the cameras or dictate the programming. It’s “community access,” and we hope it remains accessible.