City of Saline, Saline Area Schools to Discuss Ways to Improve Cable Access Channel

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Are you one of those City of Saline residents who haven't cut the cord? Then you might have seen the PEG fees and franchise fees on your Comcast bill and wondered why you pay them.

PEG fees - otherwise known as "public, educational and governmental" access fees - were paid to communities to help produce local content for the cable access channel.  In Saline, the local cable access channel is Channel 18 - if you are a Comcast subscriber. The franchise fees are paid for use of the city's right-of-way and easements.

City and school district leaders are discussing ways to get more out of Saline Community Television Network.  The public face of that discussion began Monday night during a work session at city hall.

"It can be a valuable public resource  for people in the community of all ages. I think that's what we should strive for," Mayor Brian Marl said.

But lately, it hasn't been.

A very unscientific poll in the Saline Posts Facebook group asked City of Saline residents how often they watch Channel 18. 191 people said they never watch it. The second most frequent answer was "1-2 watches a month," which had seven votes.

City council members have been questioning the value the city gains from Channel 18 for years. Former Councillor Jim Roth often complained the television station was too focused on school district events and not enough on city-centric content.  The school-centric nature of SCTN was a natural outcome of the deal reached between the city and school district in 2008 to have the school district manage and operate the station. 

Over the past two years, especially during the pandemic, the problems worsened. With so few events and activities, there wasn't much programming. On top of that, there were other issues. Councillor Dean Girbach raised several issues. At times, there would be nothing broadcast on the channel. He noted that there was no sound available for months on end. Old council meetings, six months to a year old, would be played over and over again.

"It's clear that over the last few years this was not a school priority, nor was it really a city priority either," Girbach said.

Some changes are afoot.

The old SCTN station manager job is history.  It has been replaced by a new "digital production coordinator." Saline Area Schools has hired Benjamin Goodman for the job.

In the old days, the SCTN station manager reported to the Community Education director. Now, the digital production coordinator will report to Anna Britnell, the school district's communications director.

Britnell, Assistant Superintendent Curt Ellis and Assistant Superintendent Miranda Owsley addressed council Monday.

Britnell told council the new digital production coordinator will produce content for Channell 18 and for the city's social media channels.

In addition, Britnell and Goodman will work with City Manager Colleen O'Toole, IT Director Chris Shonk and public relations generalist Sarah Massey to ensure the city is getting the kind of content, event coverage or meeting coverage it expects.

Ellis told city council that the school district wasn't always satisfied with what it was getting from SCTN, either.

"We had what we felt was a resource. But there were often times that we tried to leverage that resource and felt as if maybe we were stepping out of balance, or that we were asking (the station manager) to do too much," Ellis said. "There were often times that it felt like (the station manager had been tasked by the city."

Ellis said when he reached out to O'Toole to talk about the cable contract, he learned school officials often felt the same way.

"We felt like perhaps we exposed a bit of a lack of communication," Ellis said. "We weren't getting what we thought we needed out of (SCTN). It was interesting to hear that the city felt the same way."

Another suggestion, recommended by Councillor Janet Dillon, was to have the Local Access Cable Television Commission, created by City of Saline Ordinance, meet more often and stay on top of things at the station.

While school and city staff begin discussing how to divide the time of Goodman and any staff he might have, there are also contract negotiations underway.

The city and school district have been renewing a contract that hasn't changed much since 2008. Officials from the city and district didn't discuss the financial details of past contracts the budget for the station. The city council work session agenda did include a copy of the 2008 contract between the city and school district.

That contract stipulated the city would pay the school district all of its PEG fees (2 percent of Comcast's gross revenues in the city) and 44 percent of the franchise fees.

No one in the meeting put real figures to these numbers. (EDIT) Wednesday morning, O'Toole  broke down the numbers. The city received $235,000 in 2019-20. About $67,000 came in PEG fees and $168,000 came from franchise fees. In all, the city sent $133,000 to the schools to manage the station.

According to the contract, PEG fees were only to be used for equipment and capital expenses required to maintain the channel. These fees can fund the broadcast center at city hall, the studio at Saline High School and all the flatscreen panels at city hall and the Liberty School media center, along with the technology needed for live streams on social media.

The contract also stipulates the district must complete tasks to maintain the cable franchise agreement. Girbach noted that many of these tasks were not completed.

It's not clear what relevance cable access channels have in the modern era. The school district and city surely like the revenue to fund the equipment and technology. SCTN studio equipment provides students at Saline High School with great learning opportunities.

But the days of creative or local-minded people heading down to the cable access channel to create content are in the history books because, thanks to social media, everyone is a broadcaster, and these broadcasts are available everywhere.

Last summer, Grosse Pointe Park's council eliminated PEG fees, slightly reducing the local cable bills. (Click here for that story)

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