Milwaukee – Municipalities are receiving more money than ever from cable television contracts, but some aren’t using it to expand local programming. They are filling budget gaps.
Local governments receive up to 5 percent of gross cable revenue. And thanks to increased cable TV revenue and such added frills as on-demand movies, local governments are seeing more revenue.
As monthly cable bills rise, communities are seeing 20 to 25 percent more money flow in compared with four years ago.
Some cities, such as West Allis, began appropriating cable fees to their general fund, while others such as Oshkosh didn’t increase their cable access budget.
Dawn Wills, the president of the Wisconsin Association of Public, Educational and Government Access Channels, said when budgets are tight, the channels that broadcast Sunday church services and local pet adoption shows feel the pinch.
"When you’re looking at police department or cable access for cuts, it’s usually cable access," said Wills, who coordinates the River Falls cable access channels.
In West Allis, Time Warner Cable’s yearly payments have risen from $408,000 in 2001 to $480,000 in 2003. They were $252,000 for the first six months of 2004.
Until this year, all of that money went to funding the city’s government access channel. But this year, the Common Council directed $150,000 of its cable payments to the city’s general fund.
That city’s public access and educational channels are funded by a $1.02-a-month, per-bill surcharge payable to the city — about $200,000 per year — and hold fund-raisers to keep themselves afloat.
Do it again
That reserve fund is part of the reason West Allis will likely again divert cable fees to its general fund, Mayor Jeannette Bell said.
"I think it was more a budgetary decision than anything else," she said.
The government channel, which airs local history programs and public meetings, puts its annual surpluses in a reserve account to buy new equipment.
When cable TV came to Milwaukee, then-Mayor Henry Maier insisted on having a channel available for citizens to air their own programs.
Barry Orton, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor who was also on Milwaukee’s first cable negotiating team, said cable access stations have fulfilled the promise of a democratic medium for regular citizens to be seen and heard.
"On Friday night, if I turn on my public access channel, I’m going to see an hour of a guy grilling meat," Orton said. "The viewing audience isn’t going to watch it; it’s going to watch ESPN and Fox News. But at least it’s there."
Not every community placed an emphasis on public access television.
While West Allis, West Bend and Oshkosh nourished active stations by broadcasting high school sports and programs such as "It’s Polka Time," communities such as Fond du Lac decided to not have any city-run channel.
Brookfield counts all of its 5 percent toward its annual budget and broadcasts a government access station that carries city announcements and schedules.
When aldermen voted to begin broadcasting Common Council meetings last year, the city added a 15-cent monthly surcharge to cable bills.