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Public access television returns to Albany

by Laurie Lynn Fischer on April 14, 2011

For more than 15 years, Albany has lacked true public-access television. But at last, the city is launching a public, educational and governmental (PEG) TV initiative in collaboration with Albany Public Schools, the College of St. Rose, Hudson Valley Community College, the Albany Public Library and the Capitalize Albany Corporation.

“I hope by summer, we’ll have active public-access television here in the city of Albany,” said Albany Common Councilman Anton Konev (Ward 11). “This will provide transparency. This will provide a service to the public.”

Konev, who pushed to restore PEG TV to Albany, serves on the ad hoc council committee that has been orchestrating the effort.

“It’s exciting,” he said. “This has been years of working. The seed finally grew into a full-blown tree.”

Early in Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings’ 14-year tenure, the city stopped funding its library-based public access station. The 1994 franchise agreement his administration struck with Time Warner Cable contained no significant public-access provision.

After that 10-year accord expired in 2004, citizens and neighborhood organizations unified to demand PEG. It became a major bargaining point between the city and the cable provider. In the meantime, the two parties renewed on a year-to-year basis. It wasn’t until early 2011 that the state Public Service Commission ratified a new franchise agreement.

In it, Time Warner Cable agrees to contribute almost $435,000 toward PEG TV—including $217,000 in start-up costs for a studio beneath the library’s main branch. There will be another $217,000 infusion early 2013.

Time Warner will charge viewers 35 cents per month to finance the operation and pay the city a franchise fee of roughly $1.25 million per year out of its earnings from Albany subscriptions.

If all goes according to plan, Time Warner subscribers will soon be able to tune in to watch common council, planning, zoning and historic resources meetings.

“I would hope that by June at the very least, we would have the common council chambers wired up and the bigger portion of the government taken care of,” said Councilman John Rosenzweig (Ward 8), who chairs the ad hoc committee.

Since late 2008, Albany Community Television has been voluntarily filming government meetings in the city and posting them online—a la C-SPAN—to fill an information void.

“With all the hundreds of thousands of dollars they’re spending, I would hope that we would eventually be completely replaced, said ACT founder and volunteer videographer Elise Van Allen.

For the time being, ACT will continue providing unedited, unbiased video to the people of Albany, she said, with a hint of regret about the considerable time investment she and videographer Joseph Cuniff make.

“We’re going to have to run parallel,” she said. “They’re not going to post the meetings on the web per the current contract. They’re missing the direction that media is going. It’s shortsighted and behind the times. The TV is becoming less and less of a source.”

The city is unsure about the feasibility of posting meeting videos on its website, Konev said.

Nobody has approached ACT about collaborating with the cable endeavor, noted Van Allen.

“We’ve never been asked if we would host the videos online,” she said.

With just hundreds of dollars worth of equipment, ACT can shoot 12 hours worth of footage at a stretch, but the new PEG can’t, Van Allen said.

“The tape-based equipment is dated,” she said. “It isn’t the kind we need to get the proper coverage. Sometimes the meetings run up to four or five hours. If nobody is dedicated to watching the camera or the time remaining on the tapes, the tapes could all too easily run out and significant portions of meetings would be missed.”

April 13 was the deadline for volunteers to indicate interest in serving on the board that will supervise Albany’s community-access television effort. As of April 12, at least a dozen people had stepped forward.

“We want to try to seat this board by the beginning of May,” said Rosenzweig.

The Albany Common Council adopted the recommendations of its ad hoc public access TV task force in 2007. The task force recommended that PEG TV should be run independently of the government or city council.

As it turns out, the city government appoints a majority of the board’s members. Jennings gets to pick two out of 11 members; the council chooses four.

The other five members of the new Public Education and Government Access Oversight Board come from the College of St. Rose, the New School of Radio and Television at Hudson Valley and Capitalize Albany, which will fund program coordinator Brendan Giovanni’s 25-hour-per-week position.

Mayor Jennings will select someone to chair the board the first year. From then on, the board will elect its own chair.

Board members’ terms eventually will be three years. During phase-in, the mayor will choose a two-year and a three-year member. The council will choose a two-year member, a three-year member and two single-year members.

The board is charged with monitoring contracts between the city, Capitalize Albany and the institutions that create programming.

Once Albany’s PEG TV is broadcasting, viewers will be able to make and submit their own content for channels 16, 17 and 18. There will be a minimal charge to cover the cost of data conversion into an airable format.

“We’re going to have no shortage of different programming coming to the table,” Rosenzweig said. “All the different departments in the city are going to be doing prepared pieces to educate the public about things like recycling information and hazardous waste clean-up days.”

Albany Public Schools will be able to broadcast everything from open houses to snow days, Rosenzweig said. Groups already have come forward with shows in Spanish and programs about mental illness and addiction, he said.

In addition to the new library studio, two existing college studios will be used. One is  located on the Harriman office campus and run by Hudson Valley Community College’s New School of Radio and Television.

The other is at the College of St. Rose. Albany High School students will have the chance to take an advanced placement media course using St. Rose’s studio, and members of the public will have the chance to learn how to produce shows there, Rosenzweig said.