Cable re-up: Reinvented NCTV sets sights on new contract; first hearing Tuesday

Sunday, March 23, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — The last time the city’s Cable Advisory Board held public hearings on a new cable contract nearly a decade ago, its panel members got an earful from city residents.

Many expressed frustration with the city’s former community access television studio on Bradford Street, where outdated equipment, infrequent training opportunities, poor programming and inadequate staffing drew the ire of residents. There were other concerns about accountability and revenue sharing.

At the time, the city’s 10-year cable contract with Comcast, which ran the studio, was set to expire and some publicly described the former pact with the cable giant as an “embarrassment.”

The testimony from residents would play an important role in the city’s negotiations with Comcast. The two parties hammered out a new long-term pact that transferred management of community access television operations to the city and gave birth to the nonprofit Northampton Community Television, which is largely funded by cable subscriber fees.

The once-maligned station, which eventually moved to Northampton High School, is now a nationally recognized and award-winning community access television studio that continues to grow each year in terms of its programming and use by the public.

“We’ve really reinvented the station for the community and the community has embraced us,” said P. Al Williams, executive director of NCTV and the nonprofit’s first full-time employee. “We feel like we’re doing great work. We want to continue to do so.”

On Tuesday, city residents will once again have an opportunity to air their views during a public hearing at JFK Middle School at 6:30 p.m. The hearing kicks off the formal and complex contract renegotiation process between the city and Comcast, its cable service provider.

The current contract is set to expire in April 2016. While there are expected to be subsequent public hearings, local officials say it’s important for residents to speak about their cable experience and the city’s future needs regarding the next multi-year contract. One area the city has no authority to negotiate is cable rates and programming, which are overseen by federal regulatory agencies and are not the subject of Tuesday’s hearing.

“I think it’s important to show Comcast that there is a vibrant and active interest from the public access side to utilize all the resources the city is entitled to over the course of another contract with Comcast,” said James McKeever, who serves on the city’s Cable Advisory Board. “There’s an explosion in terms of use with the channels and the programming, and I think there is room to grow.”

The four-member Cable Advisory Board is tasked with evaluating and monitoring the performance of the city’s cable service providers, among other duties, and making recommendations to the mayor during contract negotiations. The panel also assists with complaint resolution and research on cable and public, educational and government access technology advancements.

“It’s really a very important resource in the community,” Clodagh Parker, chairwoman of the Cable Advisory Board, said of NCTV. “I think the numbers tell us how important it is.”

During its inaugural year in 2007, NCTV operated on a budget of about $175,000 and had one employee, Williams, running the studio. The public used the studio and its equipment on about 150 occasions. Today, the studio, which broadcasts on three channels, has three full-time employees, operates on a $290,000 budget and was utilized by the public on more than 2,000 occasions.

“Our demand outweighs our capacity,” Williams said.

In addition, NCTV runs Paradise City Press, a citizen journalism program, which offers a range of classes and workshops in using multimedia technology and broadcasts government meetings and events. NCTV has twice been honored nationally for its websites for community media organizations with budgets under $300,000.

Williams said supporters of NCTV will likely advocate for more funding under a new cable contract as it explores expanding its facilities and embraces new technology. The station’s supporters plan to advocate for high definition broadcasts and hiring more staff, such as an education coordinator, Williams said.

Northampton Mayor David J. Narkewicz said he supports the continued growth of NCTV and stressed the importance of residents attending the public hearings.

“To the extent that we can see a more robust NCTV, I think that’s a benefit to the city,” Narkewicz said.

He noted other issues will likely be raised during the renegotiations, including the performance of city’s communications network and the lack of a service office for cable subscribers in Northampton. The company’s Bradford Street office closed in 2011, meaning customers must now travel to Comcast offices in Amherst, Greenfield or Springfield for in-person matters.

“I think what we’re doing now in this next round is really assessing how that technology is performing and what the city needs over the next 10 years,” the mayor said.

In addition to Tuesday’s public hearing, city residents can also provide written testimony to the city by contacting Terry Masterson, the city’s economic development director, at tmasterson@northamptonma.gov, or writing to Clodagh Parker, chairman, Northampton Cable Access Board, Room 12, City Hall, 210 Main St., Northampton, MA 01060.

Dan Crowley can be reached at dcrowley@gazettenet.com.