Cable Access's iMedia Goes Dark

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It's not the most surprising press release to ever arrive in the Unfair Park in-box -- especially given the fact that City Manager Mary Suhm's FY2009-2010 budget cut its funding ($246,000 for last fiscal year, about a third of its annual operating budget). But there it is: Dallas iMedia Network, which operates three public-access channels, is calling it quits ... for now, anyway. The full release is after the jump, but David Dunnigan, chairman of iMedia, says, "We are reluctant to take the drastic step to cease operations, but funding must be secured to allow us to reorganize and continue to serve the communications needs of our region. Additionally, until we clarify our contract status with the City of Dallas, citizen journalism, and locally produced public affairs and entertainment programming is in serious jeopardy."

Last month, Ron Natinsky told Brad Watson that, hey, these are tough times, so, tough: "If they need that money, they're going to have to tighten their belt a little bit just like all the other people in the city have." WFAA's Brad Watson also reported that "some council members privately noted [president and CEO Lisa] Hembry's $100,000 salary," which she said came "from fees paid by Time Warner subscribers to the city."
Dallas iMedia to Suspend Operations of Public Access TV

Community-produced youth, religious, public affairs television programming to cease; hope expressed that funding can be found to continue operations

Dallas iMedia Network announced today it will suspend public access productions, equipment usage and operation of its three cable television channels until funding can be secured for its continued service delivery.

Anticipated partial funding from the City of Dallas to continue the contract did not materialize in the FY 2009 -2010 budget leaving the status of local public access television in a state of insolvency. Dallas iMedia Network operations include channels for youth-produced, faith-based and public affairs programming and has provided public access television management and services for 22 years. The organization was formerly named Cable Access of Dallas and Dallas Community Television.

The City of Dallas receives a 5% franchise fee on Time Warner's gross revenues plus sales taxes on cable services. Time Warner Cable subscribers pay a monthly assessment of 39 cents that is specifically designated for local access television (PEG -- public, education and government). These funds are remitted to the City of Dallas, as well. Time Warner executives said the company has 190,000 subscribers in Dallas.

The City of Dallas contracted management of public access television services to Dallas iMedia Network with funding from cable related subscriber fees. The current 5-year contract specified annual payments of $525,000 pending annual appropriations. Prior to becoming a contractor for the City of Dallas in 2000, funding for community access television came directly from the cable franchisee. When the city renegotiated its cable franchise agreement in 2000, the contract specified that local access funds would go directly into city coffers. Funding for public access has declined consistently since 2005.

The 2001 budget allocation for community access television services in Dallas was $700,000. In 2005, it was reduced to $543,000, by 2007 it was $300,000 and last year it was $246,000, which is less than one-third of iMedia's annual operating budget. When the public access system was operated by the cable company in the early 1980s, the annual budget was $1.5 million.

In addition to managing three public access cable channels, the City of Dallas contract requires Dallas iMedia to be open to the public at least 60 hours per week, maintenance and repair of television production equipment, and commercial and broadcast liability insurance, among other costly requirements.

David Dunnigan, chairman of the organization, said, "We are reluctant to take the drastic step to cease operations but funding must be secured to allow us to reorganize and continue to serve the communications needs of our region. Additionally, until we clarify our contract status with the City of Dallas, citizen journalism, and locally produced public affairs and entertainment programming is in serious jeopardy."

Lisa Hembry, president and CEO, said she has advised the organization's full-time employees that salaries will cease immediately. Since much of the channel playback system is automated, signals and member produced programming for each of the three channels will continue to be cablecast on Dallas Time Warner Cable and Verizon Fios through the end of October, and will continue to be streamed for viewing on the organization's website.

"We wish to thank everyone who has given their support in this effort to remain viable including the Press Club of Dallas which calls Dallas iMedia a 'symbol of the First Amendment' under the U.S. Constitution and the threat of its closing a 'dark day for Dallas journalism,'" said Dunnigan.

"We will exhaust all efforts to continue operations," he said. "If the City of Houston can support its public access system at a level of over $1.2 million annually and the City of Austin supports its community access system at $650,000, surely Dallas can find ways to maintain our viability, particularly when cable subscribers pay for it -- not taxpayers."

He said the organization is exploring several options including resources through the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas and grants from local foundations and cable providers.

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