Access to the People: CATV Broadcasts Government and More

  • Bob Franzoni, executive director of CATV sets up a video camera with sixth graders Zachary Beland, left, and Stephen Prunk, right, before they take to the halls of Hartland Elementary School to gather interviews Tuesday, December 10, 2013.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Bob Franzoni, executive director of CATV sets up a video camera with sixth graders Zachary Beland, left, and Stephen Prunk, right, before they take to the halls of Hartland Elementary School to gather interviews Tuesday, December 10, 2013.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Sydney Ladeau, 11, adjusts her camera on a tripod before filming a holiday segment for show she and several sixth graders are putting together at Hartland Elementary school Tuesday, December 11, 2013. CATV Executive Director Bob Franzoni teaches the students about the process of creating a television show.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Sydney Ladeau, 11, adjusts her camera on a tripod before filming a holiday segment for show she and several sixth graders are putting together at Hartland Elementary school Tuesday, December 11, 2013. CATV Executive Director Bob Franzoni teaches the students about the process of creating a television show.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Bob Franzoni, executive director of CATV sets up a video camera with sixth graders Zachary Beland, left, and Stephen Prunk, right, before they take to the halls of Hartland Elementary School to gather interviews Tuesday, December 10, 2013.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Sydney Ladeau, 11, adjusts her camera on a tripod before filming a holiday segment for show she and several sixth graders are putting together at Hartland Elementary school Tuesday, December 11, 2013. CATV Executive Director Bob Franzoni teaches the students about the process of creating a television show.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

A poster hanging on the wall of the CATV office in the Tip Top Building in White River Junction conveys the spirit of public access television. Bob Franzoni, the station’s executive director, put up the poster, with its Benjamin Franklin quote, as a reminder of why the work the station does is important, even if it’s not glamorous.

“Without Freedom of Thought, there can be no such thing as Wisdom; and no such thing as public Liberty, without Freedom of Speech,” Franklin wrote.

“I’m a really firm believer in the First Amendment,” Franzoni said.

CATV, which has been in operation since 1993, has come a long way from its infancy as a relatively bare bones operation to its position as a vital source of information for the Upper Valley. It covers and serves Norwich, Hartland and Hartford in Vermont; and Lebanon and Hanover in New Hampshire. CATV’s bread and butter are its town government meetings on channel 8 and school board meetings on channel 10.

“We dedicate most of our time to town government and then to Dresden school board meetings,” said Franzoni, who has been at CATV since its inception.

The station doesn’t track how many people watch, but there is a pool of at least 16,000 cable subscribers in the Upper Valley from which to draw. CATV is the seventh largest public access station in Vermont, if you include the two New Hampshire towns; without them, it is the twelfth largest, Franzoni said.

Random channel surfers are unlikely to spend much time watching taped meetings, but for anyone who wants to see what happened at a particular meeting, CATV is the place to go. And for anyone interested in how town government, the necessary but sometimes tedious machinery of democracy, works at a local level, CATV serves an important function.

“Having any meeting broadcast is important to having people understand ... how we make decisions and what we factor into decision making,” said Julia Griffin, the Hanover town manager.

Lebanon City Manager Greg Lewis, who used public access television in previous positions as a government official in New York State and Minnesota, has had a half-hour show biweekly on CATV since 2012.

“It’s part of citizen engagement so people can hear directly from people involved trying to get service to them,” he said. The shows are not edited after the fact, he said. “It’s a full 30 minutes of hearing what the person I’m interviewing is talking about. It’s just pure streaming of the information and of the comments.” In keeping with the varied way in which people get information, Lewis’ show is broadcast not only on CATV but is also posted online.

Diversity of programming is also a hallmark of CATV. On a recent weekday, Channel 10 offered a program on ice fishing, classic music videos, a recorded Lebanon Middle School winter concert, and a tutorial on copyright law.

Over on Channel 8, there was a taped press conference given by Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, a program on reducing gun violence, another on climate change, a lecture about timber on the Connecticut River by Dartmouth College history professor emeritus Jere Daniell, and reflections on the life of the late Ray Burton, who served 35 years on New Hampshire’s Executive Council.

The station’s programs are also available on its website through Vimeo. If you want to catch up with a Hanover High School soccer game that you missed, they’re broadcast on CATV, as is the show For the Animals. Such non-profit organizations as The Haven, Listen, Vital Communities and the White River Junction Rotary come in to record PSAs (public service announcements.)

CATV was recently given an Award of Merit by the American Association for State and Local Historians for a documentary it did in conjunction with Lebanon’s AVA Gallery, Connecting the Threads: Overalls to Art, H.W. Carter and Sons Factory. In the same vein, it’s working on a documentary about Norwich’s one-room schoolhouses.

“We’re here to be a community resource for people and nonprofits,” said Angelina Baynes, the CATV station manager. “To come in and do a show is not that difficult.”

“Anybody who lives in the five towns we serve can come in and use (the facility),” Franzoni said. “We will train them.”

How CATV is funded depends on which state you’re talking about. In Vermont the two largest cable television companies, Charter and Comcast, are required to support public access television, or what’s called PEG (public, educational and government public access) both financially and logistically, through facilities and equipment, Franzoni said.

CATV is supported in Vermont by Comcast. A small percentage of a customer’s monthly bill goes toward public access, and money flows directly from Comcast to public access stations. This year Comcast increased CATV’s annual budget from $280,000 to $405,000, in anticipation of the fact that the station is expanding its services and staff, Franzoni said; the budget takes effect in February 2014.

In New Hampshire, it works differently. Hanover collects fees from Comcast and gives a percentage of that revenue to CATV. Currently, Lebanon supports CATV through the tax base, although it is negotiating with Comcast to do a franchise agreement like Hanover’s, Franzoni said.

Historically, Comcast’s funding of CATV in past years had been set at around 4 percent of franchise fees and cable bills, while other Vermont public access stations were at 5 percent; the new budget brings CATV to the same level as other state public access stations. Even in an era of streaming online there’s value to having town and school meetings broadcast live on CATV.

“It’s an important tool in our toolbox of public communications. It’s effective,” said Griffin.

It has also helped, she said, that CATV posts meetings on its website as well as broadcasting them, because the way in which people watch TV is changing so rapidly.

People who want to use CATV’s services should be aware, Franzoni said, that “CATV is not PBS.” The programs the station produces don’t necessarily have the highest production values. But “most people come in with interesting ideas and we will work with them.”

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com