Rethinking the Community Media Center of the North Bay

A man juggling knives.

A local brewer extolling the virtues of hops.

And a therapist discussing the meaning of dreams with a monkey puppet.

These are just a few of the hundreds of videos local residents have produced and aired over Santa Rosa's public access cable television channels with the help of the Community Media Center of the North Bay.

The diversity of the programming shows the 16-year-old nonprofit has been fulfilling its mission of giving the residents access to media technology and training they might not have had otherwise.

But tight city budgets and the easy availability of smartphones, YouTube and other new technology have the city slashing funding for the center and rethinking what kind of media services the community needs in the future.

On Tuesday, the Santa Rosa City Council approved a new contract with the Community Media Center that cuts city operating funds for the center by 55 percent, from $660,000 last year to $300,000 for the new contract.

Dan Villalva, executive director of the center, said he's grateful the negotiations are over, but regrets the new contract may force additional layoffs at the struggling center.

"I wish it were a better contract," Villalva said. "But given the financial circumstances of the day, we're grateful to be getting the money we're getting."

Last year, in the midst a protracted contract dispute with the city, the center was forced to lay off four of its 14 employees, Villalva said. The new one-year contract now threatens three more positions and could further reduce public access to the center's Mendocino Avenue production studios, he said.

The nonprofit was established 16 years ago to manage the four channels that the city has secured for public access through its franchise negotiations with Comcast's predecessor. Funding for the center has come largely from the franchise fees paid by the cable company to the city.

Details of the financial disagreements between the two parties and how they were resolved are complicated. But the single largest revenue stream for the center, from franchise fees paid by Comcast, is taking a significant hit.

Instead of the 35 percent of the fee the center long received, the new contract provides just 17 percent, or $300,000. A separate annual payment of $150,000 to support the four public access channels has been eliminated.

In the center's favor, it will be eligible for up to $150,000 funding for capital improvements, with council approval. It will also receive $157,000 to resolve several financial disputes relating to how it has been paid in the past, including fees the center claimed it should have been paid after AT&T began offering its U-verse television service in 2007.

The biggest change, however, is that once the one-year contract is up at the end of March 2013, the city wants to open up bidding for the services to other providers.

The city plans to explore what media services residents need and then invite other organizations to submit proposals for providing those services, said Jennifer Phillips, assistant city manager.

"Without going through the (request for proposals) process, we just can't speak intelligently about what opportunities are available to the community," Phillips said.

It has been clear through negotiation process that the city is interested in exploring other options for the services the center provides, Villalva said.

These include video production and editing services for the approximately 300 people who are members of the center; staff-produced public service videos on issues of interest to city government, such as efficient water usage, bicycle safety and gang prevention; and the live broadcast of public meetings such as the City Council and Planning Commission.

The center manages programming on Comcast channels 26, 27, 28 and 30, as well as AT&T's U-verse television service, and on the center's website.

The explosion of digital video devices and popularity of websites like YouTube have dramatically changed the way people create and upload videos.

But that has not made the center or public access channels irrelevant, Villalva said.

If anything, it has increased public interest in the techniques for creating and distributing videos, he said.

Ida Johnson, who produces a current events talk show called "What's Hot" through the center, said the center's board of directors supported the new contract despite the sharply reduced funding because it needs to focus on the future.

"This gives us a year to get our act together," Johnson said.

In an effort to broaden its revenue stream, the center is exploring providing service to other communities, as well as hosting fundraisers. The center is holding a telethon from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday that will include music, magic, puppets and other entertainment.

Julio Martinez, a center board member, spent most of Tuesday setting the stage in the center's main studio for the event. He said he'll do everything in his power to make sure the center stays alive.

"It's not going to go down on my watch," Martinez said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com.