CORRECTIONS: After publication of this article, the City of Minneapolis Communications Director responded with clarifications and corrections of information about PEG and franchise fees. See second sidebar for this information.
The Minneapolis Television Network (MTN) is slated for deep cuts in Mayor Rybak’s proposed 2012 budget, despite the fact that Public, Education and Government (PEG) fees from Comcast will almost double. The mayor proposes cutting $250,000 from the program’s annual budget, leading to huge staffing and service cuts. Pam Colby, Executive Director of MTN, has concerns that the funding cut is, at least in part, retaliation for MTN allowing independent producers to broadcast content that some city officials find offensive.
MTN provides direct access to television broadcast equipment and cable television channels for a diverse community, offers training in the use of video, television and internet technologies and offers educational and mentoring opportunities for students in grades six through 12. Programming is also produced and geared toward a number of groups traditionally underrepresented in mainstream media including various ethnic groups, youth, seniors, the GLBT community and more, according to its website. Original programming at MTN includes numerous channels geared toward constituents communicating in their native languages, including Somali TV, Ethiopian TV, Oromia TV, Awade Ethiopia, Vietnamese Minnesotans TV, and Sahan TV-African Ethinic Magazine.
What is MTN?
MTN was founded as an independent nonprofit organization by the Minneapolis Mayor and City Council in 1983, according to its website. State law required that the cable franchise in the city financially support community television. The first cable company in Minneapolis to do this was Rogers Cablevision and the current holder is Comcast Cable.
Though it’s a nonprofit, MTN is governed by nine board members appointed by the city council, the mayor, and three ex officio members representing the Minneapolis Public Schools, the City of Minneapolis, and Comcast Cable.
Free speech and its critics
MTN hasn’t been without its controversies. Part of its mandate is public access programming, meaning that it’s supposed to be a forum for the community to have a show and exercise their free speech.
MTN ended up in the Sixth District Court after a 2005 MTN program hosted by Al Flowers during which Booker Hodges called then-City Council member Don Samuels a “House Negro”, indicating it was time to “kill” such people, according to Minnpost. The show was suspended, but Flowers filed a lawsuit against Don Samuels and the City of Minneapolis and ended up winning $3.
“Basically, the verdict was that the city should not tamper with the free speech on MTN,” said Colby, who said there have been other speech issues over the years.
Then, this year, MTN aired the Tyson Show at 11 p.m. on Sunday nights. The participants were all young African Americans, and the producer included sexual talking and dancing together in different parts of the show. The Tyson Show involved “bumping and grinding,” according to Colby.
According to Colby, City Council member Barbara Johnson called her and said that the show needed to be taken off the air.
In an interview Johnson said she didn’t recall telling Colby the show needed to be taken off the air, but she certain was “disgusted that it was on the air.”
After the phone call, MTN staff reviewed the show, and concluded that it did not in fact break the obscenity law. “We are basically mandated at a federal level,” she said. “If a city council chooses to have these public access channels they need to protect the First Amendment on them.”
Colby responded to Johnson that there was nothing MTN could do about the show. Then, Colby received another phone call from Johnson. “She called me at home at 8 a.m. in the morning,” Colby said. “She was verbally harassing me about the show and what I was going to do about it. I was so startled to have somebody talk to me that early. I was just tongue-tied.” According to Colby, Johnson said that MTN was facilitating prostitution and that she was going to call the cops. Colby told Johnson to go right ahead — the council member had done so before.
Johnson said she didn’t say the show facilitated prostitution.
According to Johnson, the show in question was “in very poor taste” and “vulgar.” She sent a copy of the show in question to Lt. Nancy Dunlap, from the Minneapolis Police Department’s Sex Crimes Unit. Dunlap found that one of the women in the video, contrary to Johnson’s suspicions, was over 18.
Dunlap told TC Daily Planet that there was nothing illegal in the video, although, according to Johnson, Dunlap agreed with her that the show was in very poor taste and “bordered on the obscene.”
Johnson felt the show, like another that she complained about two years ago, promoted a particular business, with the producer saying to the audience to call him if they wanted to be on TV.
On August 2, Colby said, Johnson left a voicemail for Colby, asking what in the MTN charter makes them play mildly obscene programming, and making sure that she gets “this crap off the channel,” according to Colby.
Johnson, in an interview with TC Daily Planet, said her objection to the show had nothing to do with Rybak’s slashing of MTN’s budget. “As a city taxpayer and a cable viewer, I can express my opinion about a show that I found disgusting on our TV station.” Though she thinks the show was not the kind of programming she thinks should be on a publicly owned television station, Johnson said she would never retaliate against a city department. “I’m not stupid,” she said.
John Stiles, Communications Director for Mayor R.T. Rybak, emailed a statement in response to questions about why MTN was being cut, and whether it was in retaliation for specific programming.
“In tough times — when too many people are still unemployed and property values are struggling to recover, when the state and federal governments are dramatically scaling back their commitment to local communities and when residents are rightfully concerned about high property taxes — everyone needs to cut back, including the City of Minneapolis. This is why Mayor Rybak’s 2012 budget proposal holds property taxes flat and makes difficult cuts to nearly every City department and program.”
Budget drops as PEG fees double
CORRECTIONS: See sidebar for corrections on the numbers in PEG and franchise fees, and for the city’s explanation of both.
City of Minneapolis responds:
We tried to get an explanation about MTN funding and cuts from the City of Minneapolis before publication of this article. What we got was a one-paragraph email response from John Stiles, Communications Director for Mayor R.T. Rybak, which was published as part of the article. After the article was published, Sara Dietrich, Communications Director for the City of Minneapolis, contacted us to say that the article is inaccurate, and furnished further information. Here is the information furnished after the article was published:
To be clear, the City contracts with MTN to provide “public access” television. Minneapolis Public Schools is responsible for the educational access television (they have not historically received any of the PEG fees generated through the franchise agreement). The City of Minneapolis (through the Communications Department) is responsible for the government access television. As a side note, since the City first entered into a cable franchise agreement in the 1980s, MTN has been the contract provider for the “Public” access portion of Public, Education and Government (PEG) access television. While the PEG fees from the franchise agreement are paid to the City of Minneapolis, the City has paid MTN the equivalent amount of the entire PEG fee. In addition, the City has provided additional dollars from its General Fund (the dollars that go toward basic city services like police, fire, emergency preparedness, etc). In 2010 for example, MTN received $724,000 from the City of Minneapolis to provide “public” access television. The City received $487K from Comcast for PEG fees, which means that of the $724K, you could say that $487K was from PEG fees and $237K was from the City’s General Fund.
[In 2010, MTN received $724,000 from the city and in 2011, it received $702,000.]
The city received roughly $3.15 million in franchise fees in 2010, and $487K in PEG fees. On this point, I would say that the lumping together of Franchise Fees and PEG fees implies that both are to be used for PEG operations. Franchise fees are specifically for the franchise owner (Comcast) the rights to use of the City’s public right of way (just like other public utilities) and therefore those dollars are intended for general fund usage.
The City of Saint Paul receives roughly $2 million in franchise fees (I would contact them for the exact amount), which stay with the City of Saint Paul. Saint Paul also receives an Annual Capital Grant from Comcast that I believe is $50K (again you would need to confirm with them) and that also remains with the City. SPNN receives $848K from Comcast in the form of a grant. It is actually to provide both the Public and the Education access television services (MTN is only providing the Public portion of that equation). Subscribers pay $1.50/month to Comcast to recoup the cost of that grant to SPNN.
MTN funding from Minneapolis comes in part from the Public, Education and Government (PEG) fees paid to the city by Comcast cable. Last year, MTN received $702,000 from the city, though the city received over $2 million from Comcast in PEG fees and franchise fees, according to Colby. Comcast has about 74,000 subscribers, according to Colby, a number that has remained more or less constant throughout the recession. The mayor proposes to cut MTN’s budget by $250,000 in 2012.
According to Colby, the Comcast PEG fees are slated to double on December 31, 2012. [According to the city, the PEG fees will increase from 56 cents to one dollar on January 1, 2012.] Unlike St. Paul’s public access station, SPNN, which receives PEG fees more directly in the form of a grant, the Minneapolis franchise fees go to the city’s general fund, with only a portion going to MTN, according to Colby. SPNN receives $840,000 in grant money from St. Paul, according to Mike Wassenaar, Executive Director from SPNN.*
City Councilmember Gary Schiff, said he’s not sure what the mayor was thinking in cutting MTN’s funding a year before the Comcast fees double. “MTN is responsible for bringing in all this new revenue,” he said. “If MTN is bringing in revenue as a result of the Comcast contract, they should be receiving benefit of that revenue.” Schiff said he’s concerned about what this potential funding gap could do to MTN’s programming, much of which benefits immigrant and refugee communities. Schiff said MTN is “absolutely worth protecting… We should focus on that gap so we don’t interrupt the quality programming that they’ve won awards for.”
Council Member Cam Gordon, too said he was concerned about the cut in funding to MTN. “One place I think we need to look first is within the [City of Minneapolis] communications department budget itself and perhaps spreading the cut more evenly,” he said in an email.
Public access in danger across the country
The budget challenges that MTN is facing in Minneapolis are part of a national trend. “We are fighting this battle at a national level,” Colby said. “From the Republican side, they are taking away the franchise fees to the cities, and redistributing it to the state,” she said.
Sylvia Strobel, Executive Director for Alliance for Community Media (ACM), said: “What we are seeing happen is devastating.” According to Strobel, a number of public access TV stations are seeing funding being yanked out from under them even though they are some of the “few sources of local news and information that still exist.”
Budgets for community television stations tend to be very small, according to Strobel, even though they produce “a phenomenal amount of programming.” Strobel said that Minneapolis model, where cable franchise fees go directly to the city, is more common than the franchise fees going directly to the nonprofit that runs the TV station. When the fees go to the city, Strobel said, “ It’s being absorbed and used for other purposes.” Meanwhile, cable subscriptions are declining, but that doesn’t have as much of an impact as reallocation of funds elsewhere.
This legislative session, ACM will be lobbying for the Community Access Preservation (CAP) Act, which is in the house and has bipartisan support. The act addresses the use of funds from these franchise fees earmarked for equipment, as opposed to operating costs, and to eliminate discriminatory treatment for cable access channels. They’ll be visiting Capital Hill on October 12.
MTN’S budget hearing is scheduled before the Ways and Means Committee, on October 5 at 11:30 AM in the Council Chambers room 317 of City Hall. The hearing is open to the public.
[FULL DISCLOSURE: Pam Colby is a former board member of the Twin Cities Media Alliance, the parent organization of the TC Daily Planet. Jay Gabler, arts editor of the TC Daily Planet, is a cast member of Freaky Deeky, a show which airs at 10 p.m. on Sundays on MTN, but Gabler had no part in assigning or editing this story.]