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Cable access complaints not new

Evanston has tried before to fix perceived problems with its cable access system, but with little apparent success.

Back in 1996 as the city was negotiating a new cable franchise agreement, then Alderman Gene Feldman, 9th Ward, was quoted in the Evanston Review as saying, "There has been a lot of citizen concern and controversy" about cable access.

Evanston has tried before to fix perceived problems with its cable access system, but with little apparent success.

Back in 1996 as the city was negotiating a new cable franchise agreement, then Alderman Gene Feldman, 9th Ward, was quoted in the Evanston Review as saying, "There has been a lot of citizen concern and controversy" about cable access.

"Viewership has not been what it could or should be," Feldman added. "The programming for a long time has lacked a significant interest on the part of the community."

Jerry Saperstein of 2009 Harrison St. was a member of the city’s Cable Communications Commission when it looked into the problems with cable access in the mid 1990s.

"John Hayes and I started off asking why" the cable access operation "wasn’t more active, why more people weren’t using the richly funded facility," Saperstein says now.

"I’m a big proponent of cable access," Saperstein added, "but the system flies entirely below the radar and is a benefit to only a few people."

He said he doubts most people are even aware of the city franchise fee that they pay on their cable bill, or that part of the money ends up going to provide the cable access channels.

In 1996 the City Council voted to restructure cable access.

What was then known as the Evanston Community Television Corp. was reorganized as the Evanston Community Media Center Inc. The new group was given responsibility for not just public access channel 6 that ECTC had run, but also the government access channel 16. ECMC also reached an agreement with School District 65 to run the district’s channel 19.

Feldman said then that whether community access television continued to exist would depend on the new group’s board.

He said he hoped cable access would become "a daily viewing habit" for Evanstonians.

"It’s not enough to have a station," Feldman said, "The purpose is to have viewers and to transmit things of value" so people "receive some benefit from it."

But because of its highly diffuse structure, with individual volunteer program producers having near absolute control over what appears on the access channel, finding a steady audience has proved difficult.

Cable access channels aren’t tracked by the commercial rating services because the services sell their numbers to advertisers and by law advertising is prohibited on cable access.

Saperstein suggests ECMC could use some of its surplus cash to hire researchers at Northwestern University’s Kellogg Graduate School of Management to research its audience.

"At any time they could have financed an objective survey by a reputable third party to find out what their viewership is," Saperstein says.

"But that’s the last thing in the world they want to do. It would establish that nobody watches it, except perhaps for City Council meetings from time to time."

And Saperstein asks, if people were given the option of paying a fee to support cable access — like they pay for additional tiers of program channels on cable now — would they pay it?

Evanston City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz has proposed trimming $200,000 from the roughly $440,000 that ECMC receives from the city as the city tries to find ways to close a projected $9.5 million budget gap. That plan has raised conflicting views in the community about whether ECMC should receive, more, less, or nothing at all from the taxpayers.

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