Community Television struggles to achieve financial sustainability during hard times for noncommercial media outlets
Faced with budget cuts, legislation that restricts spending, and decreasing revenues, Community Television of Santa Cruz County (CTV)—the 19-year-old pillar of local public media access—has been left with no choice but to re-invent their business model, lest the nonprofit succumb to their financial hardships.
Their solution? To stop operating so much like a nonprofit.
CTV’s struggle to survive and devise new ways of bringing in revenues reflects the experience of public access channels all over the nation.
Back in 1984, when cable television was taking off in America, dramatically increasing the bandwidth available to media outlets, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) made provisions for noncommercial, nonprofit media programming, collectively known as PEG, or “Public Access, Educational and Government,” stations. However, over the past three decades, those provisions have steadily declined, making it increasingly difficult for nonprofit PEG outlets to survive.
A recent development in this trend was the Digital Infrastructure and Video Competition Act of 2006 (DIVCA), which restricted community television organizations to spending their government funding on capital expenses only—no programming, and no staffing.
The new vision that the county and the CTV Board of Directors are implementing centers around a “public-private” fusion—a middle ground that allows them to provide many of the same services they always have, but simultaneously generate new revenues, cut expenses, and create new partnerships with businesses, says Kathy Bisbee, CTV’s new executive director. She signed a year-long contract on Aug. 2, taking the reins from former Interim Director Lynn Miller.
Bisbee is also executive director for the sister station to CTV, Community Access Media Partnership (CMAP), which serves Gilroy, Hollister and San Juan Bautista. The deal between CMAP and CTV helps to reduce staffing expenses and focus administrative oversight, she says.
To develop CTV’s new public-private model, it recently signed a one-year contract with Romney Dunbar, a former news anchor who has worked for mainstream news outlets including KSBW, KION and KMST, produced his Monterey Bay Area Comcast show “Travels with Romney,” and served as head of his media business, Dunbar Productions. Dunbar signed a one-year, $80,000 contract that partners Dunbar Productions with CTV, though Bisbee says he plans to contribute a percentage of his pay back to CTV.
In overseeing these changes, Bisbee says Dunbar, who was propositioned by the county, will be tapping his connections with the business community to assist in securing more paid CTV productions, leveraging community support for program sponsorships, and generating new revenue with underwriting deals.
With Dunbar’s background in the private sector and Bisbee’s many years in public access television, the two are charged with molding CTV’s business model to straddle the for-profit and nonprofit worlds.
“We’re sort of the personification of a new public and private merger,” Dunbar says. “My goal is to see if we can meet somewhere in the middle in order improve the service and make it more viable for the community, but also something that business organizations would be willing to include in their budgets.”
“With that in mind,” he continues, “it came upon a nonprofit board to start thinking like a for-profit company. And it’s been very difficult.”
To keep the public in the loop, Bisbee and Dunbar are producing a monthly show called “Reinventing Community Television” that features the two discussing how operations will change at CTV. The first episode can be viewed at communitytv.org.
“We’ll want to educate people on what we’re trying to do this because there will be push-back,” Dunbar says. “There are those who have perceived CTV as strictly public access, and it’s not that anymore. It’s going to be very exciting on one hand, but it’s going to be very uncomfortable for people who don’t want to see this change at the rate we need to achieve it.”
Bisbee says that community television organizations all over the country are facing the same challenges posed by DIVCA.
In California alone, the implementation of the law has forced the closing of more than 50 PEG television stations, according to Keith Gudger, chairperson for CTV’s board of directors.
Locally, CTV received an extension on the implementation of DIVCA through July 2014, but that time is fast running out, Gudger says. Dunbar says the pressure is on to have plans in operation and generating new revenues by July 1, 2014, marking the start of the county’s new fiscal year.
To make matters worse, local CTV county funding is also taking hits. Two years ago, CTV received about $750,000 annually for operations, Gudger says. This year they received about $550,000 and expect about half of that next year.
Santa Cruz County First District Supervisor John Leopold says part of the reason CTV finds itself in this rough financial situation is because the board chose not prepare earlier for DIVCA.
Leopold says the county has enough funding to provide CTV with between $200,000 and $250,000 annually for the next three years. Bisbee says their goal for the next fiscal year is to bring in $250,000 in revenues, matching what they hope to receive from the county.
She says that the overall plan of action to make CTV financially sustainable has four parts, including rebuilding their technology infrastructure, implementing a fundraising plan, changing their fee structure—which in the past has been free to community members—to a fee-based one, and, lastly, creating new efficiencies that can be managed by a very small staff.
Bisbee points to Denver, Colo.’s pubic access television station, which has reduced its costs by running with “one and a half staff members.” Currently CTV has six staff members and plans to lay off another by the end of the year.
Also helping to bring in cash are new fees for members.
In the past, CTV members have paid $25 fee for one year of unlimited resources, Gudger says. Soon, they will have to pay a yet-to-be-determined fee for each-time usage of the studio and equipment, though he says the board plans to implement a sliding cost scale—down to zero—for members who can’t afford to pay.
Sandy Leigh, a longtime CTV member and the producer of the locally popular music show “Spilly Chile’s Bowl of Rocks,” says he is very concerned about the way things are changing at the television station.
His most immediate concern is the loss of staff, such as Access Facilitator Craig Goldstein, whose position will be terminated in December. Leigh says the access facilitator has a key role in helping new producers learn the ropes when they join CTV.
“That money [given to Dunbar] could go toward the access facilitator’s position,” says Leigh.
Ron Holman, who has been involved with CTV as a volunteer and staff member since its beginning in 1994, departed the organization at end of July, but not before voicing some concerns to the board of directors on a CTV broadcast last month.
He acknowledged the need for change, but urged the board to proceed carefully, and to not lose sight of the original purpose of public access television.
To illustrate what a departure from an original purpose might look like, he posed the question: what would happen if public libraries began charging for book rentals?
“The consolidation of media in this country in the past few decades is astounding, and it poses a huge threat to our democracy,” Holman writes in an email to GT. “PEG stations such as CTV are one of the last bastions of free speech, and it is vital to our community to keep it viable.”