Pandemic leads to new local content for BCTV

Local access cable nonprofit brings membership up to date — via Zoom, of course

BRATTLEBORO — This past year has brought opportunities and challenges to Brattleboro Community Television.

At the community access station's annual meeting on Sept. 16, Executive Director Cor Trowbridge outlined some of the year's highlights and surprises.

While the COVID-19 pandemic altered a lot of how BCTV operated, the station has seen a record amount of locally generated content.

Like most of BCTV's work since the public-health crisis unfolded in March, the annual meeting happened online.

Prior to COVID-19, “we were on track to having a banner year for 2020,” Trowbridge said. But once the pandemic reached Vermont, she said BCTV, like so many organizations, retracted.

For example, the organization opened a new podcast studio in February and then had to close it to the public in March.

On March 17, the office closed. Staff covered their final in-person event on March 26 and then shifted to working from home.

What BCTV didn't anticipate was how much the community would still need its services, Trowbridge said.

“We ended up having a huge surge of locally submitted content,” she added.

Since July 6, staff have been working in the studio on a limited basis, in compliance with the state's COVID-19 safety precautions.

Between March and July, the station recorded 90 online meetings. Community members submitted more than 325 shows and created 10 new series. BCTV staff also broadcast graduations for Landmark College, Brattleboro Union High School and Brattleboro Area Middle School, and Leland & Gray Union Middle and High School.

In her State of the Station report, Trowbridge said, “I'm proud to say, all staff remained on payroll with similar hours to pre-COVID, paid from a PPP loan, and we just kept working.”

Helena Leschuk has begun work as the station's operations manager after the retirement of longtime employee Vlasta Popelka [story, this issue].

Trowbridge said the station is also seeing an uptick in the demand to cover and stream live events, such as Next Stage Arts' four-hour telethon Arts Unite Windham and Brattleboro Representative Annual Town Meeting - the first online town meeting in Vermont.

Other cable system changes

As a result of the purchase of Southern Vermont Cable by Comcast, who also has the franchise for Brattleboro and a number of adjoining towns, the cable company and BCTV signed a memorandum of understanding on March 3 for a phased-in revenue increase over the next three years, as well as updates to equipment.

Starting in January, the station will see an increase in the percentage received from Comcast for cable subscribers, from 2.25 percent to 3.5 percent. The increase will reach 5.5 percent by 2023.

A bit of fun news came out of the Harris Hill Ski Jump in February.

According to Trowbridge, for the past two years, BCTV has provided USA Nordic with a live video stream of the event. This year, USA Nordic did not do any streaming, so the live stream was offered to BCTV exclusively for the whole ski jumping season. This year's event received 20,000 views through Facebook Live, she said.

Trowbridge updated viewers on some of the threats that the station faced this time last year.

One threat was the potential loss of revenue due to a Federal Communications Commission rule change. Trowbridge said that despite this change, the cable revenues that BCTV receives from cable companies have remained steady for the 2019 and 2020 fiscal years.

Trowbridge anticipated that this trend will eventually decline.

“We anticipate cable revenues decreasing as more people switch from watching cable to watching television online, for which we don't receive funding,” she said.

As a result, the station has introduced new revenue streams. These included increased donations and money from underwriters. The station also added fees to cover Selectboard meetings and has changed its membership structure and fees for production services.

Fiscal year 2020 ended with a 28 percent increase over the previous fiscal year, she said.

Trowbridge said plans to renovate the Municipal Center, where the station's offices and production facilities are headquartered, are still at least a year away.

She said the Windham & Windsor Housing Trust is exploring converting the top two floors of the Municipal Center into housing and moving the Selectboard meeting room and BCTV into the basement. Trowbridge said the project is in the feasibility study stage.

The settlement of Comcast's lawsuit against the state over the terms of the company's certificate of public good in 2019 resulted in a few upsides for BCTV.

Trowbridge said that the PEG (public, education, and government access) channels are now listed on Comcast's searchable cable program guide. As a result, BCTV was moved from its longtime frequencies (channels 8 and 10) to higher numbers (1075 and 1085).

She said that under the terms of the settlement, PEG stations like BCTV also received a one-time lump-sum payment to cover “remote streaming” options. BCTV also received some money for advertising its new channel numbers.

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