City council green lights funds for cable television bureau

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The television studio on the ninth floor of the City-County Building is a relic of its former glory. A receptionist's desk sits vacant. A large studio space is cluttered with defunct equipment, and much of the machinery that is functional is about a quarter-century old.

Today, the studio is so old "it has a museum-like quality," said David Finer, an editor and videographer with the cable bureau.

Its programming is a haphazard mix of city announcements, re-runs of city events like proclamations, and old footage of city neighborhoods set to music. (Thursday evening, Kiss's "I Want to Rock'n'Roll" played along with advertisements encouraging residents to be environmentally responsible.)

"It's like a Rick Sebak episode of things that are no longer there," said Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak, lamenting that the photo and video montages that often play between programs haven't been updated in years.

But the city has, in recent years, attempted to find funding to upgrade the cable bureau, whose main task is to broadcast city council meetings and public hearings, so it could produce better-quality programming.

The city has signed franchise agreements that permitted Verizon and Comcast to run cable operations in the city for a fee. As part of those contracts, the two companies also agreed to give the city grants and money collected from a per-subscriber fee to operate the cable bureau and public access channels, which are currently administered through the nonprofit Pittsburgh Community Television (PCTV). In total, around a million dollars in grants was supposed to be given to the city over five years, mostly to be used for capital improvements like equipment purchases.

But on Wednesday, as council voted to reallocate the funds coming from Verizon and Comcast, some members raised questions as to where that grant funding had gone. If the cable bureau had been allocated funds for capital upgrades, why had the cable bureau spent only around $140,000?

"[It] makes me wonder where the other [money] went," Councilman Bill Peduto said during Wednesday's meeting.

The agreements signed in 2009 and 2010 called for the cable bureau to receive all of the grant money. But in early 2011, when the city renewed its agreement with PCTV, it radically altered the allocation of the funds. This resulted in PCTV receiving well over a million dollars in city money, while the resource-starved cable bureau got just $280,000 to be used for capital improvements. It's unclear why the bureau has spent only about half that money.

Council members said they never approved the new allocation of the funds and were largely unaware of the change. Frustrating them further, the city had set up an agreement to allow Comcast and Verizon to pay PCTV directly, bypassing the city. That practice was ended in July at the request of concerned members of council.

But city solicitor Dan Regan said council clearly authorized the agreement. In 2009, a resolution passed by council charged the Pittsburgh Cable Communications Advisory Committee to formulate a strategic plan for PCTV, which gets about 85 percent of its funding from the city. And, according to the resolution, "funds shall be allocated pursuant to the strategic plan."

The strategic plan called for the cable bureau to get just $140,000 of the grant money -- which totaled over a million dollars -- and to continue to receive a tiny portion of the per-subsriber fee. PCTV would get the remainder of the grant money and the lion's share of the per-subscriber fee.

But the resolution given preliminary approval Wednesday rectifies the imbalance, splitting the remainder of the grant funds 50/50 between the cable bureau and PCTV. It also gives the cable bureau a fluctuating amount -- between $165,000 and $200,000 -- of the per-subscriber fees a year, while the remainder will go to PCTV. All of the money will flow through the city, and Controller Michael Lamb will have the ability to audit the city funds that go to PCTV.

Ms. Rudiak said the cable bureau's plight should be taken seriously and believes it plays an important role in the city, even if city council meetings and public hearings -- which constitute the bulk of the original programming -- aren't always the most exciting thing on television.

"Some of the meetings are really boring and some are really high stakes," she said. "It's really about strengthening democracy."


Moriah Balingit:, 412-263-2533 or on Twitter @MoriahBee.


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