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Can educational and commercial TV mix for cable access station?

ROCKLAND, Maine — The regional school board is considering whether it should enter into a deal with a local commercial television station to run the community’s educational access cable channel.

One of the issues raised by the school board chairman, however, is whether the commercial nature of the operator would violate terms of the cable agreement.

VStv approached Regional School Unit 13 earlier this year with an offer to run the educational access channel, Channel 11 for viewers with Time Warner Cable in the Rockland area. The Rockport-based television station has offered to broadcast the school board meetings and provide additional programming which could include school plays, sporting and academic events.

VStv has also offered to provide internships for students at the Rockport-based station.

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In exchange, VStv would have its programming appear on Channel 11 in order to reach viewers on the lower basic tier of the cable system. VStv currently is on Channel 88, which is not included in the basic cable package, and programs can be watched online.

Reade Brower, one of the founders and owners of VStv, told the school board Monday afternoon the goal of the station is to be “hyperlocal” and that Channel 88 reaches communities outside of its Knox and Waldo Counties coverage area. The educational access channel would provide the station the local reach, he said.

The cable franchise agreement between the city of Rockland and then FrontierVision expired in 1996 but the terms of that contract have continued on with the successor cable providers. The agreement requires the cable provider to offer a government access channel, an educational access channel and a public access channel.

The contract with Rockland for its cable system prohibits “carriage on the public government and educational access channels, programming of advertising material designed to promote the sale of commercial product or services, including advertisements by or on behalf of candidates for public office, lottery information and obscene material.”

Brower said VStv would include sponsored content on the educational channel but not advertisements. He said sponsorships are different from commercials in that sponsorship messages would not use any superlatives about the businesses and there would be “no call for action” to use the business’ product or services.

RSU 13 Board Chairman Steve Roberts repeatedly said he likes the idea of getting more use out of the educational access channel but questioned how the board could get around the commercial prohibition. He cited a federal court ruling out of New York City was prohibited from from turning over its educational or government access channels to commercial entities.

“One of the difficult questions is do you ask permission or seek forgiveness,” Brower said.

He said he believes both sides would look the other way on any agreement between the school district and VStv.

Ned Lightner, station manager of Belfast Community Television, said rules on what is allowed on government and educational access channels differ from community to community. In Belfast, sponsored content is allowed on the public access channel but not on the educational or government access channels. He said the public access channel is open to a variety of programs while government and educational access are limited to those specific entities such as city council and planning board meetings for government access and school board meetings on educational access.

VStv programming appears on the public access channel for Belfast. The sponsored content on public access are modeled after Public Broadcasting Service which must be no longer than 20 seconds, use no superlatives, have no call for action, and not mention prices.

Lightner questioned how some of the programming provided by VStv would fit into an educational access channel.

“I worry that a media business that actually controls the entire channel, might make programming decisions based upon their financial interests or the political opinions of the owners of the business,” Lightner said.

RSU 13 has had an arrangement with Dan Burgess for broadcasting school board meetings live and then have them rebroadcast. Burgess has been paid $60 per meeting. Business Manager Peter Orne said that Burgess informed the district earlier this year he was no longer going to offer his service. The past two months of board meetings have not been televised.

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