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City, schools cutting ties with video nonprofit

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The City of Evanston and School District 65 plan to go it alone next year in providing video coverage of public meetings and are terminating contracts with the non-profit Evanston Community Media Center.

The annual contracts — for $51,600 from the city and $35,000 from the schools — provide the bulk of operating funds for the media center, also known as Evanston Community Television or ECTV.

City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz says that after a series of City Council meetings couldn't be carried live on the city cable access channel this fall it became apparent that ECTV "no longer has the technical expertise it once did to, under the contract, keep all operations running."

In addition to managing government and educational access channels under the city's franchise agreement with Comcast, ECTV has also managed a public access channel and operates a small production studio in the city's service center building at 2020 Asbury Ave.

But even with free rent for the studio space, it's not clear whether ECTV can continue to operate without the city contracts to produce the coverage of city and school meetings.

ECTV's cash reserves have shrunk since 2011 from more than a quarter million dollars to about $40,000 currently.

Scott Walton, the group's recently appointed treasurer, says the board has gradually reduced staff, and will cut further from two people to 1.5 positions after the first of the year.

The group has typically generated a few thousand dollars a year in membership fees, but has had little success in generating other revenue streams.

Walton says the current board, which was chosen last September, has not made any final decisions about how to generate more revenue, but is considering trying to come up with more money by renting its equipment for commercial productions.

Members now, Walton says, can check out a $5,000 camcorder and additional valuable light kits and audio equipment for free. "They would probably be worth $300 or $400 a day at commercial rental rates," Walton says.

Bobkiewicz says he still sees value in having public access television available in Evanston and wants "to make sure that continues in some form or fashion."

But the amount of programming produced by ECTV, Bobkiewicz says, has declined in recent years, and producers increasingly are developing programs elsewhere and just using the channel for distribution.

"ECTV has gone through several boards in the five years I've been here," Bobkiewicz said. "Each has had great promise, but doesn't follow through, and then a new group comes along."

Lilo Schuster, ECTV's current president and a long-time program producer at the center, said she hopes aldermen will reverse the city manager's decision to terminate the contract and will give the group one more year to try to do more fundraising and generate more revenue from production services and studio rentals.

Schuster was unable to provide figures on how much original public access programming has been produced by ECTV this year. She referred questions about that to ECTV's executive coordinator, Thelma Walker, who did not return a call seeking comment.

Bobkiewicz is scheduled to discuss the future of the access channels with aldermen on the Human Services Committee at a meeting at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Jan. 5.

Related stories

New video contract to save city money (1/14/13)

Media center agreement up for renewal (11/27/12)

ECTV drops executive director in budget crunch (6/29/12)

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