A resolution to dissolve River Falls' two public-access cable channels sparked much discussion during the City Council's regular meeting Tuesday, Nov. 28. Four local residents spoke out against the resolution during public comment time.
Tim Montgomery, a 15-year River Falls resident with a TV and communications background, is a RFC-TV community producer.
He said people stand "to lose a good community-building tool" if the cable stations were axed.
"Discontinuing cable access is an issue that needs more input from the community and a planned transition," Montgomery said. "I think we all agreed that the way we access information is changing, but local cable access customers are still accessing RFC-TV for community news. "
Chris Larsen, another resident with a background in both broadcast and online communications also urged city council members to vote against the resolution.
He urged council members to consider the audience that receives information from the cable channels.
He noted the City Council videos on YouTube don't have many viewers. As of Tuesday, most City Council videos on the city's YouTube channel had 30-40 views or fewer.
Larsen urged the council to consider the type of formatting to best deliver city council content to residents.
"We're not accustomed to watching longform programming online," he said. "Chances are, we're not going to watch the City Council meeting on Facebook or YouTube."
He also said with the future of "net neutrality" in question, he thinks the available bandwidth for viewing city council meetings could be unpredictable as well.
Larsen said he was told by a city staff member that web-based programming is the future.
"While I agree with him that this is the future," Larsen said, "We're living in the present."
Two other residents also spoke out against closing the cable channels. They said they appreciated having the cable channels for city news, and that more than just they would be disappointed if the channels were dissolved.
They also questioned why the process wasn't more open.
Several of those who spoke suggested consolidating the channels into one instead of closing them entirely.
According to a brief presentation by City Communications Manager Mary Zimmermann and Management Analyst Fellow Brandt Johnson, cable arrived in River Falls in 1983. The City first started its own cable channel in 1985. Its name was changed to River Falls Community Television (RFC-TV) in 2000.
Last year, the city acquired channel 18 from the school district.
The cable station was partially supported by public, educational and governmental fees (PEG)—a $1.25 per month subscriber fee. Those revenues came to about $52,000 per year for the city. Those were eliminated in 2007 by Wisconsin Act 42, Johnson and Zimmermann said.
RFC-TV currently broadcasts meetings, community events, sports, religious services, State of the City reports, city programs of special interest, and small-form videos created for YouTube and Facebook. Channel 18 is focused on meetings, some special programming and WEAU TV 13 from Eau Claire.
Channel 16 is focused on community programming, religious services, local sports, and a community bulletin board.
According to Comcast, Brandt and Zimmermann said, there are about 2,848 households in River Falls with cable subscriptions—about 2.6 percent fewer than last year.
They also said that 304 respondents to a City newsletter survey ranked RFC-TV last when asked where they get their news. Only 3.3 percent said they got their news from RFC-TV, according to the survey.
City staff suggested the following alternative coverage.
Council meetings would be shown live over YouTube and would afterwards be available on YouTube. Committee meetings would also be available on Youtube.
Sports coverage would remain available on the streaming service "The Cube."
Special events would be available live on Youtube or Facebook, and on YouTube.
And faith-based programming could be available from the faith-based organizations' communication channels, YouTube, and DVDs.
Special programs could be available via Youtube or Facebook Live.
The City Council, however, did not vote to approve the resolution. Instead, many said they felt the time was not right to dissolve the cable stations.
"I think we are kind of pushing this a little quick," council member Chris Gagne said.
Gagne, who works in the telecommunications field, said he's often in seniors' homes for his work. He said those age 70 and up would be the most impacted by losing the cable channels.
He said many of them don't have internet access, or if they do, wouldn't know how to find a City Council or other video on YouTube.
"I don't think there is a huge benefit at this point to the City of River Falls to dissolve this channel outside of a little bit of time for our broadcast crew," Gagne said. "I do think that we need to put more emphasis on the internet and our Facebook, our YouTube, Twitter, LinkedIn. I think we need to focus on that, but we're doing this a little bit too early."
He also said rather than relying on citizen survey data, he'd like to see a survey of those who would be most impacted by removing the cable channels.
Council member Scott Morrissette said he too felt that the cable channels were very important to those they serve.
He compared the cable channels to the local shared-ride taxi service.
"It has very limited ridership," Morrissette said, "but the people who need it, really need it, and the people who use it really enjoy the service."
Morrissette said he would be in favor of closing one of the channels and consolidating city coverage onto the other channel, then possibly revisiting the idea of closing the other channel at a later date.
Council member Todd Bjerstedt asked if city staff had looked at consolidating to just one channel.
Council member Jeff Bjork asked what would happen to WEAU news if the city stopped broadcasting channel 18.
RFC-TV staff member Dennis Hildreth came into the council chambers from the booth where he was recording the meeting to answer Bjork's question. He said that Comcast telecasts the Eau Claire news on Channel 18, and no matter who runs that channel, it will continue to air.
If the city were to drop one of the channels, Hildreth, said, he'd recommend the city keep channel 16.
Council member Diane Odeen said she was impressed at the community's response.
"I've been on the council for more than four years, and this one issue has gotten more phone calls to me, more comments to me in a short time than anything else," she said.
Odeen said she agrees that the future is online. However, she did not think now was the time to drop the cable channels entirely.
"I think my main problem with the cable channels, I feel like we don't do it well as a city," she said. "But, apparently we do it well enough for people to love it."
She said she would be in favor of consolidating to one channel and trying to produce more content for that channel.
Council member Hal Watson said he also agrees that the future is online.
"But I don't believe we can cut a third of our citizenry from public access," he said. "It's just not fair."
He said it looked like the city's focus has been on online media. He'd like to see more effort go into the cable channels as well.
The council did not vote on the issue but instead asked city staff to come back with more information and more options. For example, council members asked what it would look like if the two channels were merged into one and how much programming that's being produced for online could also be put on the cable channel.
City Administrator Scot Simpson said it would take "significant resource investment" to make a big difference in the cable channels.
Watson challenged those who came to the meeting to "get re-involved in this endeavor" and encouraged people to volunteer for RFC-TV.
Simpson said city staff will gather more information to present to the City Council at a later date.
No action was taken by the council on Tuesday.