With the city manager proposing to pull a city subsidy equivalent to 40 percent of its budget from the Evanston Community Media Center, we asked center treasurer and program host Jeannie Sanke to answer some questions about the center’s role in a changing media landscape.

With the city manager proposing to pull a city subsidy equivalent to 40 percent of its budget from the Evanston Community Media Center, we asked center treasurer and program host Jeannie Sanke to answer some questions about the center’s role in a changing media landscape.

Jeannie Sanke hosting the monthly Evanston 30 interview program.

Question: Why — when it is now possible for anyone to produce video using inexpensive mass-market cameras and distribute a video production online at no cost — should the city continue to subsidize video production for cable? The original rationale for subsidizing cable access was that there was no other video outlet available for citizens and that the cost of production equipment was extremely high.

Answer: There is a difference between your run-of-the-mill online video or home video, and video that really gets a message across; they are rarely the same thing. Learning how to use that relatively inexpensive mass-market camera is not something one easily learns from a book, and the Media Center provides a lot of excellent training for just that: learning to get your message across effectively. Furthermore, television has a much difference audience than YouTube does. From my own experience as the host of “Evanston 30”, I know a lot of Evanston organizations who never would have gotten attendance at their events, donations to their causes, and other measures of success that they have enjoyed simply by appearing on my program. We get this feedback from guests frequently. A YouTube channel does not achieve the same effect.

Question: Why should those who use the media center’s facilities pay next to nothing to use them when users of other recreation facilities in the city — like the Crown ice rink, for example — pay something approaching the cost of the facility’s operation? Similar comparison for people using facilities at the YMCA or other non-profits. I see that only about one percent of the media center’s budget comes from membership fees.

Answer: We have recently raised our membership fees, but we try to keep them low so that anyone can participate and get their message out. Since cable subscribers do indeed pay a franchise fee which by contract is to support public access, it is very well contradictory to raise membership prices and production costs to a level akin to a Y membership which does not rely on a city right-of-way (the basis for franchise fees).

Question: Why, if the media center is as valuable to the community as its supporters claim, has it only managed to raise about one percent of its budget from donations and fund-raising?

Answer: Again, subscribers for the most part already feel that they are paying for the Media Center by paying their Comcast bill which includes a 5% franchise fee.

Question: At a time when the city faces a $9.5 million gap in its $90 million general fund budget — what programs do you think the city should cut instead so that the media center’s budget can remain untouched?

Answer: I would not say that our budget can remain untouched; the CIty of Evanston is in a serious hole but I also think it is key to understand that we did not put the City in that hole, nor have we asked for any increases or special considerations.

Note that the portion of the Franchise Fee that we receive only comprises 2/3 of our budget. We may not do a lot of fundraising, but we do a lot of production work for the City, for District 65 and for the non-profit sector in Evanston at rates they would never be able to match anywhere else.

We are willing to discuss possible cost-cutting measures, but so far this option has not been open to us. We were simply informed that our subsidy was being proposed for decimation.

Where this goes remains to be seen. But if it is cut as discussed, we will not be able to meet our contractual obligation to provide public, governmental and educational access services per our agreement with the City and we will not have sufficient staff to continue to produce media product for anyone, further cutting our income.

Question: Given the general austerity level in the city — what budget reduction could the media center endure and still function — and what do you believe the media center can do to make itself less dependent on city funds and refashion itself for the 21st century media landscape?

Answer: Great question. Back in 2002, the subject of moving ECMC onto City property was first broached, and the cost in 2002 dollars for such a move was then estimated at $500-800K, just to move the Center and set up on City property. There is no really suitable space in the Civic Center (and the building is not structurally suited for such a use).

When talk of building a new Civic Center got serious a few years back, the idea of moving ECMC into the old Recycling Center was dropped, though that facility could structurally accommodate us. Obviously, housing the Center in City property would be an enormous cost saving over time, but would involve enormous upfront expense.

ECMC has been looking toward the future for some time, working to anticipate equipment and technology needs which despite the availability of mass-market videocameras continues to grow. HD technology, digital signal, and other factors come into play.

But our primary mission of providing Evanston residents, organizations, schools and government with viable means of expression will remain and in fact becomes more crucial. The City and District 65 recognize this fact as well; both have relied on ECMC to provide them not just with coverage of their meetings and hearings, but of numerous other events and to help them produce media products to publicize various issues and offerings.

As anyone who has used our services will tell you, we have provided an outlet and an opportunity for the community that is unparalleled at a level of cost effectiveness that cannot be found anywhere else. We have produced an outstanding level of product on a really bare-bones budget, and have passed those savings onto the City, District 65 and many non-profits througout Evanston.

Again, though, we are not taking “city funds” to do it but rather a share of cable franchise payments. The City is actually taking from cable funds, not the other way around. The Cable Commission and the City set up the ECMC contract based on this premise; ECMC was established to do just this, and we continue to do it, even though our costs have skyrocketed and our share of the franchise fees have been static.

With a $200K reduction, we will no longer be able to afford to complete the production work necessary to match what we have raised in the past. We will effectively have no staff remaining, no one to train and coordinate volunteers — the cut as proposed is quite simply a death knell.

What we could sustain would depend on what we might possibly negotiate with the City to reallocate in various ways, but I cannot hazard a guess as to what that might be until we have had a chance to discuss this with the City. What will be key to this effort will be a commitment to the necessity of preserving the Media Center as a vital and necessary outlet for community expression, using not just the internet and not just cable television but all media.

As media continue to change, new media forms and formats have yet to be established. When the internet came into its own, you established EvanstonNow to meet a need for information in the community, but if God forbid you died tomorrow, there’s no guarantee someone would take it over, especially if they cannot guarantee a sufficient monetary profit from offering that outlet.

This is the key manner in which PEG access remains relevant and necessary; that channel is still available. ECMC has demonstrated so far that we can adapt to new technologies, and that we can provide this service affordably.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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7 Comments

  1. Get the facts about ECMC correct
    Jeannie thank you for defending ECMC against what I define as the technical know nothings.

    There are some out there who think that ECMC can be replaced by Flip video cameras and internet video. Insane. The claim that more than half of Evanston already has broadband and is internet TV savvy is fallacious. Do they really comprehend the age demographic? How many are actual voters? What about senior citizens? What about the West side?

    Above all, there is no subsidy. As she points out the City uses most of the franchise fee revenue for the general revenue fund and ECMC only gets a portion of the cable franchise fee.

    Another thing we should not forget is that the four PEG channels are very valuable to the cable company — they can get as many as 50 SD channels on those four analog channels. They would love to have that spectrum and raise your rates because they are “offering” more inane programming.

    1. ECMC
      I was surprised to find out there is such a thing. Many people barely have enough time to watch the few news/education programs on broadcast TV let alone stay glued to Evanston cable and take ‘advantage’ of this spending.
      Perhaps this is where all the news on public events is distributed. I know when stores use to post flyers about events like Pancake Breakfasts, I at least knew about them. Now I have to find out by traveling past spots and seeing a banner or knowing about when they should be and asking around.
      For me at least, Evanston does not do a very good job of letting people know what events are coming up—including the emails the city sends out. Seeing a notice at the EPL-Main is about the only source and those are rare and spotty.
      Evanston could probably find much better uses of the money to communicate.

  2. i’ll emphasize the tech
    disclosure – i’m on the board of the ECMC

    well said (both the interview and the comment). i’ll add that people in the technology and TV space already know this, that consumer level video is not the same as professional production and it never will be. even if consumer cameras get good enough, to achieve quality optics then will never have the consumer device form factor (size limitations). and even if you don’t care about the camera quality you still need to deal with lighting (needs to be 20′ up to not have shadows), a stage, props, green screen, camera switching (especially for live programming), audio source switching. the only thing that really is just as good on cheap home gear is the editing because it’s all in software so anyone with a decent computer and $500 or more for final cut pro (there is ok low-end software too) can do a great job. storage is cheap so they can transport to/from the studio. but the studio itself is the big deal.

    as far as internet streaming or on demand goes, yes, these are great but i would say it increases the need for the ECMC even more because now our citizens have a way to reach an even bigger audience. i anticipate much more demand of the ECMC to produce content especially as we establish our own streaming channels.

    do NOT discount the 4 TV channels we have. surveys show that people want to watch most types of content on their big screen at a distance with a remote. as internet devices hooked to the tv access more content that will include more internet content. fully moving TV channels to the internet so there’s no TV (like we know today) left is coming but it’s many years away and the ECMC will be ready for it many years in advance.

    we need our city channel, our 2 school channels, and our public access channel on TV and on the internet more than ever as both offering creation and delivery of citizen expression AND continuously developing each new generation of media producers is a requirement for a democracy.

    1. Tech talk
      Hi Stel,

      I think you are confusing “need” with “want.”

      The majority of ECMC public access programming consists of a host interviewing a guest on a studio set for a half hour.

      If the interview were moved out of the studio onto location, conducted in a single-camera format and then edited on computer, the vast majority of the capital cost associated with the production would be eliminated.

      Getting out of the studio might also inspire the producers to shoot supporting video to illustrate the interview while they were out in the field, which would greatly enhance the visual appeal of the programs.

      The time required of the producer would be somewhat greater than that needed now to just plop people onto a studio set and roll tape, but the result would be better television.

      Bill

  3. Wasteful spending
    It seems in a time when we are cutting programs and positions across the city this is a huge waste of money that should have been further up the chopping block. I think the city should keep all of the cable franchise fees for the general revenue fund. It seems silly to essentially subsidize this type of operation with public money, especially under the current economic pressure.

    Also, it is ridiculous to claim that quality, informative programming can’t be done with current technology. There are multitudes of examples from journalists, other municipalities, and entertainers across the internet that would refute that point. Cable tv is an diminishing technology and using a studio and all that equipment to produce hyper local programming is going extinct.

    I don’t think ECMC can be replaced with flip cams and internet connections because I think ECMC can’t complete with this new technology paradigm. The reality is that informative and quality programming is being done with this technology all over the country/world and I think ECMC has missed a chance to remain relevant by not embracing this.

  4. What truly is great about ECTV

    I am Board Secretary along with producer of "What's Your Story" and "Health Bites" at ECTV and here are a few reason's why ECTV is essential to our community:

    1.)Every summer ECTV brings in children from the Evanston summer camp and provides comprehensive instruction on how to run television cameras, produce a show and other invaluable skills; which are held in a professional studio.  The director of the summer camp found that this class is very popular with the kids and when she thought that ECTV was no longer going to be around she looked around to see what her options were and found that there really was no other place like ECTV for the kids.

    2.)Another part of the summer camp in Evanston is a music camp.  In the summer of 2011 the children for the camp came in to the studio and performed the music that they wrote to make a music video at ECTV.  This was such a hit with the kids and the director of the program that they have asked if they could incorporate this every year.

    3.)ECTV is also a safe haven.  Those who could have chosen the wrong path in life decided to  choose a positive direction in their life through exposure to the state of the art facilities, classes and equipment that is available to them.  Through the skills that they have learned they now have a sense of accomplishment and hope. How blessed are we that a place like this exists in Evanston; which opens their doors to all people from all walks of life.

    4.)ECTV has been an incredible platform for people to create a career for themselves.  With the economy the way it is, how fantastic that Evanston can be a launching pad for those who want to do this line of work professionally.  Members that have attended classes in video production, editing and other media services  have moved onto channel 11, have worked on the set of Oprah, have created their own production companies and have had their show picked up by NBC-Chicago Nonstop.  The future can be brighter because of what members learn at ECTV.

     

    1. ECTV is a valuable City asset

      Cutting funding across all City services is a poor example of financial acumen. as an example, ECTV is a tremendous city asset. We already more than pay for it because of the 5% franchise fee — which the City already taps into, thus denying ECTV funding.  The City should pay more attention to unrecovered funding of "losers" such as the building on Church St. that went nowhere.

      We are in an age of technological change. Witness the impact of social media.  ECTV could  be an even more important asset to the City in spreading information and allowing citizens access to what is happening.

      It could serve as an important learning experience in a rapidly changing technology environment for students.

      ECTV could help the City and its functions to be more transparent. (hmmm?)

      Comcast already has technology for interactive transactions. ECTV could use that for real time two way polling on governmental issues.

      One could go on about the possibilities. Explore them, don't just cut funding and impair ECTV because of mistakes in other areas.

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