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Last week at a City Council budget meeting, Bill Schrier of the city's Department of Information Technology (DoIT) dropped a bombshell: Starting next year, the $625,000 given annually to public access television could be reduced to $100,000, and the contract currently held by SCAN would go up for bid--meaning that SCAN, and the programs it provides, would likely be out of the picture. The saved money, Schrier added, could be used to fund other things--namely, maintenance of the city's email system.
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The Cable Franchise Fund has a pretty specific set of criteria of what it can be used for: administration of the City's relationship with cable franchises (i.e., Comcast and Broadstripe) and the Cable Customer Bill of Rights, government access television, and "programs and projects that promote citizen technology literacy and access." A fourth option was added in 2001: "Use of innovative and interactive technology, including the Internet and TV, to provide the means for citizens to access City services and easily and meaningfully interact with their elected officials and decision makers."
Since three-quarters of the city's email activity comes from the outside, DoIT determined that email could fit under the Cable Franchise Fund umbrella, with $400,000 of the money saved from the public access TV cutback being directed instead to fulfill the $2 million per year it costs to maintain the city's email.
"It wasn't like it was a choice between email and SCAN," says Schrier. "It was like, 'let's find other purposes for this money.'" SCAN isn't something he's sure DoIT should be funding in the Internet age. "In the past, cable television was the only way to get your program broadcast." Not anymore, he says, adding that that the city isn't funding any similar public forums that citizens now have easy access to, like blogs.
Dian Ferguson, Executive Director of SCAN, says that they would "certainly not bid" on the new contract, adding that the $100,000 shows a lack of commitment to public access. "It would be so below what we needed to operate," she says.
SCAN has been Seattle's public access station for over a decade, controlling Channels 77 (Comcast) and 23 (Broadstripe), providing a studio to produce programs in, and teaching classes to show their producers how to make their shows. Like most similar stations, SCAN is part campy, fun shows like A Psychic Speaks and weirdo local celebrities like Goddess Kring. The other types of shows that up on SCAN are community programs like Ethio Youth Media, one of three shows produced by members of Seattle's Ethiopian community, or NTD-TV, which promotes understanding between Western and Chinese cultures, and airs in both English and Chinese at different times. (SW managing editor Mike Seely appears live every first Thursday of each month as a guest on the SCAN-produced public affairs program Public Exposure, alongside the P-I's Joel Connelly and host Stan Emert. Seely is not compensated for his appearances, unless post-telecast beef and beer on Emert's personal tab at Stanford's count.)
Some of these shows just submit their programming to SCAN, but Ferguson says that anywhere from 50-60 percent of SCAN programmers benefit from their equipment or training. "Korean, Vietnamese, Somali, Eithiopian programs, young people, high school, teaching them how to do production," says Ferguson, "I don't think [email]'s a tradeoff. What do we value in Seattle?"
The city has never intended to fund all these programs fully. "In 2006," says Schrier, "the Seattle City Council passed [a resolution] that outlined the City's expected future relationship with SCAN." He says that this resolution stipulated that SCAN would gradually find more of its own funding, and would hire a full-time staff person who would spend almost all of their time seeking funding for SCAN that was not from the city. "As nearly as we can tell," says Schrier, "this position was not hired until March of 2009." He says that in 2009, the total city funds received by SCAN added up to $880,577--the vast majority of SCAN's $939,952 budget.
Ferguson says she's been working in fundraising since January of 2009, and that they hired a second person in April of 2009. She says that they've acquired over $250,000 through grants, training fees and production fees. They're also expecting money to come in from the SCAN awards, a new program.
"We were prepared for [cuts]... the city's in a difficult financial situation and the city has to make difficult choices," says Ferguson, but says that they were expecting something more along the lines of DoIT's overall 14 percent cut. If that cut had been evenly distributed across the board, she says, they would have saved the $400,000 for the email just from cuts to the Seattle Channel.
"The bottom line is the people who suffer," says Ferguson, "It's the low-income folks."
But Schrier says SCAN's studio "is more than we need to operate public access--it's large antiquated." He says that Puget Sound Access could provide studio space and maintenance of the city's public access channels within the proposed budget. Schrier also points out that SCAN's educational programs can be provided by other organizations that DoIT funds out of the Cable Franchise Fund with the Technology Matching Fund.
The City Council will be holding a Public Budget Hearing today at 5 p.m. at South Seattle Community College (6000 16th Ave SW) to discuss the proposed budget, including the SCAN cut.