Letters in support of Princeton’s local public television station

4

League of Women Voters stands with Princeton Community Television

To the Editor:

I am writing on behalf of the League of Women Voters of the Princeton Area because, with Council’s recent decision to divert for tax relief the cable franchise fees which originally funded Princeton Community TV, voters are losing a significant public service. 

Since 2010, and at the invitation of George McCollough, executive director of PCTV, the League has collaborated with Princeton TV to videotape and broadcast League forums. We have covered all Princeton Mayoral races and Democratic primary races for Princeton Council, the contested races for Princeton Council and school board, the Mercer County Freeholder and County Executive race of 2011, the 16th Legislative District races of 2011, 2013, and 2015, and the 12th Congressional races of 2014 and 2016. George McCollough not only videotapes the forums—adjusting the sound and lighting at the various venues and zooming in on the candidates—but he adds a title and introductory information and then places the name and website of the candidates on screen as they speak.

In March of this year, I wrote to the mayor and council about the importance of Princeton Community TV to the League’s mission of informing voters about their candidates. Mayor Lempert kindly assured me that she would find someone else to videotape the League’s forums. But she didn’t say whether the League or municipality would incur fees. The League of Women Voters of the Princeton Area does not have the money to hire a videographer or rent the camera, sound, and lighting equipment needed to videotape, polish, and post its forums. One of our members, trained by George McCollough, can videotape, but the League has relied on PCTV to loan us the equipment needed at the forum itself and to do the polishing and posting at the studio. And who will train future League videographers? It is not as easy to produce a show as Council implies in its argument for terminating funding. 

Voters want to watch these forums. I’ve received requests for the broadcast schedule before it’s published because some voters are eager to watch a forum with their spouse in the comfort of their TV room. Every year the League’s forums rank either 9 or 10 as the most-watched programs on Princeton TV in October and November. As to the video, we often garner over 2000 voters watching a given race, and an astounding 5000 voters viewed, at least in part, the Lempert/Woodbridge mayoral debate.

Is it unfair to Princeton that Montgomery can see a 16th Legislative District forum or Lawrence view that of a 12th Congressional? Perhaps. But couldn’t we also frame PCTV’s outreach as a public service beneficial to Princetonians? It has greatly increased the Princeton Area League’s ability to educate voters in municipalities governed by the same elected officials as Princeton.

Princeton Community TV has performed a public service to voters since it first suggested broadcasting League forums nine years ago. The loss of PCTV will be devastating to the League’s mission of informing voters about their candidates. 

Sincerely, 

Chrystal Schivell
Voter Service, League of Women Voters of the Princeton Area 

Regarding Mayor Lempert’s letter published in the 06.12.19 Town Topics issue, responding to the defunding of Princeton Community Television, “Princeton is fortunate to have many community non profits doing important work, but these groups are funded privately, not by taxpayers’ dollars. Princeton Community Television should be supporting itself through private fundraising”, I find this misleading.

Local television needed now more than ever in the era of spin and fake news

Dear Editor:

I would like to clarify that the franchise fee IS NOT AT ALL TAXPAYER MONEY, it is cable tv subscriber money — funds generated by those who have cable subscriptions, it is a percentage of their cable bill, a portion of the company revenue, this is where the funds come from.

The reason behind this paying from cable companies is to balance the installation of privately owned cable in the public right of way. Public access is open to the population and is not commercialized.

When Princeton Community Television was initially set up, these funds were passed on by the township and borough to the station to support public access programming, as a part of the written agreement.

Eventually, the federal law was changed and now provides the option to the municipality to retain a portion of the money or to take all the funds.

For years the the passing on the funds continued. This year, the town is suspending the passing on this funding that has nothing to do with taxpayer money.

Mayor Lempert and council member David Cohen speak about the changes in the world of broadcasting, “now one only needs a phone and YouTube, no need of a tv station.” I disagree. Actually, it is now when we live days of truth spinning and blatant fabrication of information, that we need the balance we can find through public access.

When the contract expired, the town offered a new deal of weaning off the funding over several years plus a fixed amount to be paid to the station for filming and televising municipal meetings. Then officials decided to suspend the passing on and leave the station to its own devices and fundraising, paying a “cheaper” fee (worth investigating) to film and post the municipal meetings on the town website.

Ms Lempert and Mr Cohen also said that those fees “will be used for other purposes,” so $232,000 in annual funding will be used as property tax relief. Mr Cohen said the property taxes are so painful that the use of these funds for a tv station instead of property tax relief could no longer be justified. Let’s all do the math and calculate the tax relief, shall we? Yes, here comes the chuckle, it is $29 per household.

Princeton Community Television not only distributes content, it also produces a variety of shows with compelling guests that reach a very diverse audience. The subjects of the shows are health, fashion, senior living, food, autism, college, music, a show in Spanish to reach out to the Latino community to inform them of resources and organizations available to immigrants, a talk show for teens hosted by teens, PrincetoniaNow that shows events happening in Princeton, and the list goes on. PCTV also televises The League of Women Voters’ political debates since 2015 through the community.

Partners Project teams up film professionals with community organizations such as Princeton Community Housing and Princeton Youth Ballet to produce documentaries. PCTV offers studio space, training, affordable classes, and community service opportunities.

Mayor Lempert and council members, let’s back down and think this through. Is the $232,000 going to tax relief or to compensate for the lack of revenue of the first months of the new parking system, to cover the costs of taking down the canopy at Rt 206, or to pay the consultants needed to clean up the River Road dumping site? Or lawyers’ fees for lawsuits that we are not even aware of? Just wondering.

Sandra J. Bierman

Keep the lights on at Princeton TV

Dear Editor:

Full disclosure: I’m a Princeton TV member and I don’t live in Princeton—and I’m one of the reasons Princeton no longer wants to fund the cable access station. Yet by paying membership dues and fees for classes, and providing content without compensation, my use is certainly an asset, not a cost (and in line with the original bylaws; PCTV founders sought an inclusive community). 

Eons ago I studied filmmaking in college. At the time, unless you had a wealthy aunt or uncle willing to front you six figures, it was impossible to make a film. After 36 years in print journalism, and being downsized as an editor in 2010, I still wanted to use my skills to make the public aware of cultural issues. PCTV, where I’ve taken professional level classes in video editing, lighting and documentary production, has enabled me to make numerous short documentaries that have screened at film festivals, arts centers, historical societies and on the station itself.

PCTV provides a community where I can bounce ideas off others and get important feedback, as well as use equipment and seek guidance when needed. George McCollough and Sharyn Murray have infinite patience in helping the legions of producers who come through the door.

Some Princeton Council members have claimed that cable access is no longer necessary with YouTube and Vimeo, but that is a false assertion. PCTV provides curation of its programming–unlike media sharing sites, where anyone can put up a video, George and Sharyn hone the programming. Where else can you see an in-depth interview with Trenton Mayor Reed Gusciora, or a documentary about a Trenton High School program that provides prenatal education and parenting skills for teen parents, as well as daycare for their offspring, to enable the parents to stay in school and be good parents? Or a short film about how a drama program at ARC Mercer enriches the lives of those with developmental disabilities? And yes, these are not Princeton-centric topics–we’re all connected as part of a larger community. As a Princeton-based journalist I know Princeton residents are interested in the world around them.

Princeton TV has cache. When you tell subjects that the video will air at PCTV, they are proud to participate.

At a time when the business model for traditional journalism is broken, I would argue that PCTV’s model of community cable access–giving training, equipment and the right to broadcast– is essential for civic dialogue in a democratic society. The current funding formula, which it is paid for by cable franchise fees and doesn’t cost the taxpayer a dime, makes perfect sense. Rather than pull the plug on this asset, let’s celebrate the cultural capital it adds to the region.

Ilene Dube
Princeton Junction

Princeton TV shares stories that would otherwise go untold

Dear Editor:

I am a Show Producer at Princeton Community TV titled “Despite the Challenges” since 2014.

Often, this show has rated among Top 10 most watched shows aired from PCTV. This show brings local talents who despite their impeding circumstances and challenges in life, have achieved successes and go out in the community to do good things. These stories hardly make it to major news media, however must be heard; not only to further empower these individuals but the inspiration they bring to those watch their stories.

“Despite the Challenges” is one among many quality shows that my colleagues at PCTV produce to bring local stories and talents. Without this platform, these inspirational stories will remain unheard. 

In addition to the quality content production at PCTV unparalleled to any other community access network in the state of New Jersey, PCTV has extended its resources as a Community Partnership Program to produce Award Winning Documentaries on very important social issues. Needless to say, without these resources available to local producers, these achievements will not be possible.

We hope that Princeton will continue the support and funding for Community Television.

Sincerely,
Ritu Chopra

Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert’s response to Chopra’s letter:

Dear Ms. Chopra,

Thank you for contacting us regarding Princeton Community TV, and thank you for producing programming for the station. 

The Municipality appreciates the work of Princeton Community TV. Princeton is fortunate to have many community non-profits doing important work, but these groups are funded privately, not by taxpayer dollars. Likewise, Princeton Community TV should be supporting itself through private fundraising. The decision to cut  taxpayer support also has been driven in part by the change in the world of broadcasting.  There are now ample ways for video producers to easily share their work that do not incur cost to taxpayers. This may be why nearly every other municipality in the state of New Jersey stopped funding their public access stations years ago. In fact, Princeton is relatively unique in having diverted our franchise fees to fund cable access programming instead of using it for much-needed tax relief.  The truth is that many of the volunteers and TV producers at Princeton Community TV reside in municipalities that do not fund their own stations. These volunteers are demanding funding from Princeton taxpayers while they themselves benefit from tax relief provided by their own towns. This seems unfair. 

For years, the Municipality has encouraged Princeton Community TV to expand its private fundraising efforts. While we support the work of the station, we can no longer afford to support it financially. 

Sincerely,

Liz Lempert

The critical importance of maintaining Princeton Community TV’s free public access

Dear Editor:

Princeton Community TV (PCTV) is another of Princeton’s jewels in jeopardy. It broadcasts on Comcast Channel 30 and Verizon FIOS Channel 45. Many people don’t fully appreciate its importance. When cablevision was set up, in return for the use of the public right-of-way for hanging its cable, it was agreed that cable television would pay a “rental fee,” and that free public and governmental access channels would be supported by this fee.

When cablevision came into its own I was very aware of all this because my Dad, Bill Cherry, was a physicist at RCA who had worked on the color TV, and he was also a member of Township Committee. He was chosen to become Chair of the Cable TV Committee, which I think was a joint committee with the Borough, and to negotiate an agreement for free public access, which has been in place ever since. Over the dinner table my Dad would talk about the importance of public access as a source of freedom of speech and discourse about all kinds of issues.

George McCullough was not the first director of PCTV, but under him programming for free public access has really taken off. He purchased access equipment and cameras, set up a studio, and trained volunteers to develop programming, operate cameras, and make and edit video, as they still do. When I returned to Princeton in 2000, I was very impressed with the amount of programming and creativity at PCTV, and for the opportunity of citizens to be heard. At that time there were around 200 shows taped per year. Now PCTV tapes about 650 individual shows per year on all sorts of topics. Most are interview programs, but the wildest is the popular Zombie Etiquette Program, where “high-functioning zombies” wearing make-up comment cogently on a variety of topics.

Over the years I, myself, have been interviewed on several topics by different moderators. And I remember each time, being impressed with the people waiting in the “Green Room” for their taping. I remember local pastors and rabbis; Mayors and members of Council, not just from Princeton but from surrounding communities; movie critics, and citizens with a wide variety of expertises and perspectives. .I remember seeing Judy Wilson there many times as Superintendent of Schools. Popular shows have included “Back Story with Joan Goldstein”, “Perdidos in America”, “Education Roundtable”, “Breezin with Bierman,” and many others. And PCTV has easy to use cameras to lend out, camera training, a computer video editing room, training in lighting and sound production, and there are many opportunities for those interested in videography, including an award competition, and commercial opportunities.

With consolidation, PCTV was asked to pay rent out of their cable income and then to become a 501(c)(3). Then the Council indicated that it wanted to redirect some of the cable fees to the town treasury, and then ALL the fees. Meanwhile, PCTV, in moving to Monument Hall, has become less visible and less accessible to its volunteers and interviewees in its basement location. And while there is an opportunity for PCTV to do the camera-work on a semi-commercial basis for everything from governmental meetings to lectures and concerts, in my view we need to be careful not to conflate free public access with commercial television.

I hope that the current impasse can be resolved and that our town will continue to support PCTV’s free public access by passing through much of the cable fees as originally intended. The fact is that if we don’t continue to direct cable fees to support public access, the cable industry has begun to say that, then, maybe the industry should stop paying these fees. Princeton has always been known for its public discussion and the expertise of it citizenry. Let’s not shut the door on one of the key avenues of community discourse, but instead expand and promote its programming. I urge Princeton Council to continue working out an agreement with PCTV.

Kip Cherry


Community Contributor

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4 Comments

  1. With every possible respect to those folks trying so hard to convince us that the franchise fees are not “taxpayer” funds … who exactly do you think pays those fees? Right, it is the same taxpaying residents being slammed by the out-of-control property taxes here, plus renters who subscribe to cable. I don’t support Council in everything especially lately, but in this case it has made the sound decision to stop giving those funds to a single non-profit and to use them, instead, to benefit all residents of Princeton. It may be a drop in the bucket toward property tax relief, but it’s at least a drop we didn’t have before. YouTube and the like may not provide the same production quality as Princeton TV, but those alternative vehicles are more than adequate to serve the purpose.

  2. I would like to respond to the comments below regarding Princeton TV. First let me say that Princeton TV has never received Princeton taxpayer money. The money it receives via the Town comes from the Franchise Fees, also known as a “user fee” the cable companies pay for using the Public Rights of Way. This is a small fee that subscribers pay only for the video service on their cable bill. Long ago Town official concluded that having local programming on cable would be a good use of these resources. Princeton set up the non-profit manage the public access channel. The Town appointed every seat on the board, until recently.

    The Franchise Fees the station receives only pays for a portion of its operating costs. The rest of its budget it made up by membership fees, work for hire, sponsorships and donations. Princeton TV has flourished on a meager budget and tremendous community support. And is now the only local broadcaster on the cable system. If fact one of the very few independent channels on cable.

    Princeton TV has partnered with LWV to broadcasted forums in every contested election since I have been the Executive Director. I myself volunteer my time to produce the videos for the public good. And they seem quite popular. Princeton TV also covers a myriad of community events throughout the year, all on a volunteer basis.

    At Princeton TV we would love to produce a regular newscast however the economics of such an endeavor make it fiscally not possible, at least at this time. We do however offer European and Global news nightly, as well as a daily national news broadcast, Democracy Now. And we have two environmental news programs produced on a weekly basis by one of our members.

  3. If TV30 had a local news program, that might be a reason to keep it. Unfortunately, there is no way to ascertain viewership except to note how little support there is except by people producing content. Oh, maybe 8 years ago a debate video was popular on Vimeo. But speaking of the League of Women Voters, how do they broadcast debates in other towns? However worthy it is, one debate is not enough to justify the budget of TV30.

  4. I suspect PCTV serves few Princeton taxpayers very well these days. It doesn’t show Council meetings, and hardly any other public meetings. Its shows are mostly leisurely interviews in low-res. Its descriptions of its shows and episodes are thin at best, so it’s hard to find ones of interest. On-demand viewership stats from Vimeo are very low. (And why Vimeo? Most users/subscribers use YouTube.)

    I agree with Council that PCTV should wean itself off the $232,000/year town funding and raise money from supporters and users instead. Keep some per-event town funding and low-cost space at Monument Hall. But I think both Council revisiting the funding and PCTV revisiting its services are overdue.

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