Community Access Television promotes transparency and democracy.
This piece first appeared in the Sudbury Town Crier.
On September 22, the Lincoln Sudbury (LS) School Committee met with the Sudbury Finance Committee to review the recently signed collective bargaining agreement with the LS Teachers’ Association. But interested citizens didn’t have to physically attend the meeting to learn about the philosophies that guided negotiations, or to hear projections of the incremental cost of contractual “step” and cost of living increases. Any resident with a cable television connection can see rebroadcasts of the meeting in its entirety from his or her living room, and anyone with high speed internet access can watch it on demand from a computer anywhere in the world.
That’s possible because the Sudbury Access Corporation, more widely known as Sudbury TV, videotaped the meeting and made it available for public viewing. The non-profit corporation is charged with fostering development of community content for Sudbury’s public and local government television channel. “We want to be the CNN and ESPN of Sudbury,” says Jeff Winston, who chairs the Sudbury TV Board of Directors and serves as the town’s Cable Advisor. “We want to put on the channel what residents want to see.”
The idea of devoting airtime to local programming first surfaced in the United States in the 1970’s, after neighbors wanting to improve their traditional broadcast television reception banded together to share large antennae. When cable service companies subsequently formed, the Federal Communications Commission established rules requiring them to include access to and funding for channels for public, educational, and local government use in many of the communities they served.
Laws governing cable television today vary from state to state, but in Massachusetts, cities and towns individually negotiate with companies who wish to offer the service. Until a few years ago, Comcast was Sudbury’s sole provider, and as part of their franchise agreement they equipped and manned a studio for local programming. After Verizon signed on as an additional provider in 2007, the then Sudbury Cable Committee worked with Comcast and the town’s Selectmen to transfer the station’s assets to the newly-established Sudbury TV, which now operates under the direction of its volunteer board of Sudbury residents, and its contract with the town. A percentage of Comcast and Verizon revenues from in-town subscriptions are earmarked through 2020 and 2022, respectively, to fund the non-profit’s operating and capital expenses.
Former Comcast Access Coordinator Lynn Puorro, who became Executive Director of Sudbury TV on its September 2, 2008 “birthday,” oversees its facilities and programming. The station’s main studio, which is located in the lower level of the “A” building at Lincoln Sudbury Regional High School, has a lighted set, three high definition cameras, and a control room with near-broadcast quality switcher, sound, and graphics systems. Three smaller portable cameras and microphone systems are available for off-site shoots. To prepare footage for broadcast, the main studio has two Macintosh-based editing systems. In addition, Town Hall is set-up with wall mounted cameras and a control room. And thanks to a fiber optic network installed by Comcast in 2003, the station can broadcast live from a number of locations, including Town Hall, all the schools, and the Goodnow Library.
Current programming, shown on Comcast channel 8 and Verizon channel 31, is drawn from a variety of sources. A bulletin board with community notices and a headline news service both run daily. The station picks up programs from Attorney General Martha Coakley, District Attorney Gerald Leone, and Senator Jamie Eldridge through MassAccess, the New England Chapter of the Alliance for Community Media. But most air time is devoted to Sudbury-originated content. Volunteers tape local meetings, events, and sports competitions. The Selectmen host a monthly series, “Town Hall Matters,” and residents produce other on-going shows such as “The Tasting Room,” “Wild About Reading,” “The Guerilla Gourmet,” and a new veterans’ interest series. Puorro and part-time employee Cliff McGann are eager to provide training and support to residents who would like to learn to use the station’s equipment, or would like to develop their own shows. Almost anything is fair game. “We see ourselves as an extension of free speech,” says Puorro.
Perhaps one of Sudbury TV’s most important roles is as a vehicle to facilitate transparency in local government. The Massachusetts Open Meeting Law allows anyone present at a public meeting of a municipal or district governmental body to videotape that meeting (as long as he or she doesn’t interfere with the meeting). Over the last couple of years, Sudbury TV has widened the range of meetings it broadcasts. The annual Town Meeting and bi-weekly Selectmen’s meetings run live on the television channel. LS School Committee, Sudbury Public Schools Committee, and Finance Committee meetings are now regularly videotaped. While about 5300 of Sudbury’s 6000 or so households are cable subscribers and can watch scheduled television rebroadcasts of the meetings, Winston and Puorro are excited about the additional availability now possible through the station’s internet site. Since February, all Sudbury-originated programs are posted at www.sudburytv.org (click “Watch us on the web”), where anyone can see them, at any time. Selectmen’s meetings have typically drawn about 100 internet viewers, and some LS School Committee meetings have attracted 300 to 600. And the station is always looking for ways to make viewing easier. Cliff McGann, for instance, recently began indexing meeting videos by agenda items, so that viewers can jump to discussions they are most interested in, like “Superintendent’s Report” or “Public Comments.”
Sudbury TV currently relies on a core of 10 to 15 volunteers to help with taping and production. To learn more, or to get involved, visit sudburytv.org, email email@example.com, or call the station at 978-443-9507.