A public-access TV studio that serves five southwest-metro cities will go dark this month -- an example of accessible, hyper-local television being forced to refocus in an era of instant, free video uploads to YouTube and Facebook.
Residents who tape shows fear they'll no longer have a place to do so, but city leaders say they aren't doing away with public access, just starting to explore new ways to boost it.
The studio's closing comes as the Southwest Suburban Cable Commission is renewing a contract with Comcast, which no longer wants to run it. Plus, the commission says, it has outdated 1990s equipment and produces far too few programs for its audience: Edina, Eden Prairie, Hopkins, Minnetonka and Richfield.
That means residents will have to go elsewhere or completely cut shows, which range now from religious readings, political and community talk shows such as "Let's Learn to Get Along" and "Driveway Talk." Some say that leaves a void.
"You need a studio that provides gravitas for the cancer survivor, the politician, the minority group," said Eden Prairie resident Jeff Strate, who has produced a show at the studio. "This is a very inexpensive way for community groups to come in and get stuff out there."
Public-access channels are, to some degree, a relic of the era when most people got their news from television. Cable franchises were often required to provide the channels as a condition of their city franchise, and they became the place where residents could watch their local city council or school board.
But new technology, changing media habits and cost concerns as contracts come up for renewal have forced cities to reevaluate public access.
'Changing, not dying'
Cities across the metro --and around the country --have already repurposed public access service as broader community media resources.
In St. Paul, staffs produce videos for nonprofits and also train youth and immigrant groups in video production.
In Brooklyn Park and eight other northwest suburbs, local news shows are aired daily.
And in Inver Grove Heights, a production truck tapes local high school athletics and sells DVDs of those and other community events online.
"Communities have a choice in the services they put forward," said Mike Wassenaar, executive director of St. Paul Neighborhood Network and former president of the national group, Alliance for Community Media. Public access "may be changing, but it's not dying."
Nationwide, the Twin Cities is second only to Boston in the largest number of public-access entities, Wassenaar said, calling the 20 metro-area commissions "a stronghold in community television."
"It's become a very integral part of our community," said Jodie Miller, executive director of the Northern Dakota County Cable Communications Commission, which serves Inver Grove Heights and six other cities.
With community newspapers shrinking staff or closing, "in some ways, we're the last remaining outlet of local media in this area."
The Southwest commission is one of the first major ones to approve a new cable contract, but cities across the metro will soon be facing possible funding changes as contract renewals come up, said attorney Brian Grogan, the cable contract legal expert for Southwest and dozens of commissions across Minnesota and the nation. "So everyone looks at this as a possible precedent," he said.
A lost opportunity?
In the next year, city leaders in the five southwest suburbs will explore public-access needs after the studio goes dark -- the last one in Minnesota operated by Comcast. Strate, who's taped a talk show for the local DFL for three years, hopes the cities get a new or temporary studio.
The commission "just didn't even consider that studio as a resource," he said. "I do hold them accountable ... for not saying, 'Hey, maybe we should look at this studio ... maybe it could be doing more.'"
In the commission's new 10-year contract with Comcast, the studio, which costs about $250,000 a year to run, will close, and fees for cable subscribers will increase. That approximately $410,000 will now be funneled into each of the five cities to spend on public, educational and governmental programs.
In exchange for eliminating the studio and one of four channels, Comcast will convert a channel to high-definition and give $200,000 to the commission for new equipment and a study to explore future public-access programs.
A survey a few years ago found that 13 producers made 164 programs in 2009 compared with the 954 programs pre-produced outside the studio.
Wassenaar says that is likely because of Southwest's lack of programming, saying it missed the chance for shows that gave voice to immigrant groups, or that showcased local art or provided video training to youth.
"I think a lot of communities have a model from the 1980s," he said. "They simply turn on the lights and people come and create the programs."
But Grogan said the commission isn't to blame because it didn't control public access. What's more, funding and management differs across the Twin Cities for public access. It ranges from independent nonprofits to city-run operations, and from $3.49 per cable subscriber in Roseville and other north-metro cities to the 60 cents that Southwest Suburban subscribers will pay this year. Minneapolis, which debated major cuts this year, charges $1.
In Eden Prairie, Council Member Ron Case, chair of the commission, acknowledges that the studio wasn't promoted much as a cable company-run facility. But, he said, the commission will discuss studio options this year.
"I'm certainly favoring [that] we find a space and create the rudimentary parts of a studio," he said. "We will be able to do more."
Until a solution is found, the program that Ahmed Tharwat of Minnetonka has produced and hosted for 15-plus years has nowhere to go.
The show, "BelAhdan," Arabic for "with open arms," has flourished as a popular talk show among local Arab Muslim Americans, airing on Twin Cities Public Television and streaming online worldwide.
"We talk about issues no one else give you the time or resources to do," said Tharwat as he taped his final show at the studio. "I just can't see, after all these years, it's going to end."
Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141 Twitter: @kellystrib