In addition to the usual municipal tasks it performs, the City of Santa Monica also owns and operates a cable television station.
Launched a number of years ago on Adelphia cable TV channel 16, CityTV broadcasts a combination of programming it originates and programs it procures from other sources.
It is perhaps best-known for its live telecasts of City meetings, such as City Council and Planning Commision sessions, as well as some Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Board of Education meetings.
Now CityTV is expanding. A couple of months ago, it launched Channel 20, which currently rotates reruns of the most recent City Council, Planning Commission, School Board and Rent Control Board meetings from 7 a.m to approximately 1 a.m. every day.
The replays have been facilitated by new DVD equipment that has largely replaced its VHS tape set up and saves time, money and space. It was financed with Capital Improvement funds. Now, when someone requests a copy of a meeting, a DVD can be burned in a fraction of the time it used to take to copy a VHS tape.
According to CityTV manager Robin Gee, the most recent franchise agreement with Adelphia Cable includes providing CityTV with two additional channels — 75 and 99.
Channel 75 is “envisioned as a bulletin board for community and City announcements,” Gee said, adding that she doesn’t anticipate hiring additional staff to operate the two new channels, owing to the addition of more sophisticated equipment and partnerships with such entities as the Art Institute of Los Angeles, which will provide student graphics for the bulletin board.
In this way, Gee said, CityTV is “creating more resources” without increasing costs. At the moment, the bulletin board is updated weekly, but soon it will be updated daily.
Channel 99 will be called “Experience L.A.” and is the product of a partnership with experience LA.com.
CityTV’s channels16, 20, 75 and 99 are government access channels. Also included in the current franchise agreement is one public access channel, 77. Equipment provided for such public access programming includes studio space, cameras and edit bays.
However, Adelphia Cable, currently the largest cable TV operator in the Los Angeles area, is in the process of being purchased by Time Warner Incorporated and Comcast.
At its June 28 meeting, the Santa Monica City Council unanimously approved a $60,000 professional services contract for legal services and financial analysis related to the transfer with Rutan and Tucker LLP.
According to the City staff report, this review will include “among other things, consideration of the legal, technical and financial qualifications of the company. The City’s interest is to ensure the Franchisee’s ability to perform, and to guarantee the performance itself, i.e. to ensure that service is not suspended and construction in the public right-of-way is not disrupted because of financial problems.”
Once it has the review in hand, the City Council will have to approve the transfer.
Assistant City Manager Judy Rambeau, who oversees the CityTV operation, told the Mirror that in 2002 Adelphia paid the City $3 million on signing a new franchise agreement with the City. The funds were paid to settle past disputes “related to the company’s unauthorized acquisition of the franchise. $1 million of payment has been included in a Capital Improvements Project for cable TV equipment replacement, with the balance available for purchasing advanced technology, including cable modems and digital services, construction of a cable TV studio, and other emerging community needs.”
The City receives both franchise fees and Utility Users Tax (UUT) from Adelphia Cable. The franchise fee is 3 percent, which for fiscal year 2005-2006 is estimated by the City to be $615,000.
Rambeau stated, “Per the State Revenue and Taxation Code, the UUT information for specific companies is confidential and cannot be released… [but] choosing an average monthly/yearly amount paid by each of the approximately 30,000 subscribers and figuring 10 percent of that one can estimate it.”
In 2004-05, the City collected $30.6 million in UUT from all utilities, but, Rambeau said, “This money does not go back into CityTV. CityTV has always been subsidized by the General Fund and for 05-06 it is completely funded from the General Fund…[and] the Cable Communications Fund for fiscal year 2005-2006 has been eliminated.”
UUT revenue goes into the General Fund.
According to Gee, the CityTV budget for fiscal year 2004-2005 was “just over $880,000 with $640,000 of that in salaries and benefits. The proposed budget for 05-06 is less because we won’t have election coverage until the following fiscal year.”
Gee estimates that the basic costs for televising and taping a five-hour City Council meeting are staff $404, tape/supplies $10, captioning $808 and playback support $100 (making DVDs monitoring playback on weekends, etc.). The total, $1322, does not include “the costs for streaming and archiving on the web” or the cost of video equipment.
Though CityTV now has four channels, and advanced DVD technology, it still only covers the four meetings – Council, Planning, School Board and Rent Control – it has covered from the outset. Gee cites lack of sufficient funding, as well as lack of community demand for such telecasts as the reasons CityTV has not added additional meetings to its schedule, but she believes meetings should be televised that feature “big items of community interest.”
“Viewership surveys are conducted by the City every five years” Gee said, to ascertain “who’s watching, what they are watching and what they’d like to see.” The data is collected through a random telephone survey of cable subscribers.
CityTV procures almost all of its non-original programming, such as “Connie Martinson Talks Books” at no charge. It also creates some original programming and hopes to do more in the future. Its original programming includes “Santa Monica Update,” a news show, “Legal Help Live,” “Earth Talk Today,” “Non-Profit Profiles” and “Building Bridges.”
The station also creates programming in partnership with other entities such as “Coffee Break” in partnership with St. John’s Hospital and “Community Cooking” in partnership with the City of Torrance. Special programming is also done for local elections. The latest CityTV production is “Get Out and Discover L. A.”All four CityTV channels can be seen only in Santa Monica on TV, though they can be seen via streaming video on computers beyond the city limits.