The Examiner

Pleasantville Cablevision Agreement Remains Unresolved

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pctvLong-term PCTV Funding Still in Question

As the Village of Pleasantville continues negotiations with Cablevision on a new franchise agreement, a lingering issue is how the talks could impact the future of the popular public access station and studio.

The village’s franchise agreement with Cablevision expired in 2005 but there were no negotiations until Pleasantville approved a 15-year agreement with Verizon in 2010.

As part of the expired franchise agreement with Cablevision, the company contributes $40,000 a year to Pleasantville Community Television.

However, that is almost certainly going to decline significantly since Verizon’s deal calls for that provider to pay a total of $50,000 over the 15 years, with payments divided into three installments in the first, third and ninth years of the agreement. The only other money PCTV receives from Verizon is a payment of 40 cents per subscriber per month.

“We knew this when we settled the Verizon contract,” Pleasantville Mayor Peter Scherer said of the declining PCTV payments. “Cable companies in a monopoly setting were willing to provide more support for public education and TV. The lay of the land has changed. The dynamics are different than they were 10 years ago.”

Pleasantville officials and attorneys for the village are currently reviewing the latest proposal sent by Cablevision. Scherer declined to disclose any specifics about that proposal but said he expects funding to PCTV to decline.

Despite the challenges, Scherer said he is optimistic that PCTV has a long future. He praised the station for launching its on-demand website, in 2009, allowing anyone to access programs and local meetings.

“It’s a popular way to check in on village meetings and village affairs,” Scherer said. “Clearly that was a right-minded move and they have done a great job. There are lots of good people working hard.”

Previously, eight Westchester municipalities, including Pleasantville, New Castle and Ossining, formed a consortium to negotiate with Cablevision as a single entity. Those eight communities wanted to create public access television and were able to split money derived from Public, Educational and Government Access (PEG) grants.

However, when Verizon came into the picture, it was able to break the consortium and negotiated with each municipality separately, diminishing each town’s leverage in receiving PEG funds. Meanwhile, Cablevision sat and watched, waiting to negotiate its own agreement.

“The village knows about this and takes our concerns very seriously,” PCTV Station Manager Shane McGaffey said. “It’s a tough situation. There’s no malicious intent on the village’s part. They want the best for us. Over time, things haven’t gone the way one would’ve hoped. They are going to do the best for us that they can.”

Another wrinkle in the village’s relationship with Cablevision is that cable providers pay municipalities 5 percent of the money they make from cable fees in exchange for access to the public right of way to install cable. Cable providers do not have to pay for use of Internet or telephone, only television. With an increasing number of consumers viewing television through the Internet, the 5 percent payment to the village, which uses a portion of the money to help fund PCTV, is also likely to erode.

“We knew this was coming,” McGaffey said. “This isn’t a Pleasantville issue, this is a public access issue.”

Village Trustee Brian Skarstad said he doesn’t regret approving the Verizon franchise agreement, although talks were contentious and the company refused to budge on any of its terms.

“Competition is always good,” Skarstad said. “Verizon offered what Cablevision didn’t. For us to shut out Verizon is the wrong way to go. Did we like the way we were treated? No, but people are getting better rates. That’s not a bad thing.”

A proposal by Skarstad would see Cablevision and Verizon raise its rates by $1 to help fund PCTV, though both providers have rejected that idea.

Skarstad said officials are aware that PCTV is too important to the village to lose.

“I don’t think anyone can contemplate the end of PCTV,” he said. “How do we help them survive? Is this sustainable in its present model, especially with the decrease in funding?”

Another proposal by Skarstad is having the local public access stations consolidate with neighboring towns, although most municipal officials prefer having the studios in their community.

PCTV has been preparing for evaporating financial support for years. The station has been exploring various ways to produce revenue without reliance on PEG fees.

PCTV’s 2012 budget is $157,250. Last year’s budget was just under $157,000, according to PCTV figures. However, only $21,740 was derived from public donations.

In addition to the declining funds from the cable providers, rent on the Jackson Alley studio this year is at $20,200. At one point, it was $1.

“For us to survive, we have to find better and more sustainable economic models like bringing in private sources of money through our website,” said McGaffey, who estimated that the 40-cent per subscriber fee may only net about $10,000 a year. “Our success, or lack thereof, is the determining factor of our future.”

Skarstad said the new Cablevision franchise agreement will prompt PCTV to take a hard look at what it does.

“None of it is good,” Skarstad said. “With money drastically being reduced, how do you make that work? PCTV is one of the leading lights of the village. It doesn’t seem that cable providers are all that interested in helping us.”

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