Why MCTV needs to share with the public on the Coastside
What do you do when good people, people you consider to be your friends, make bad decisions—bad decisions that are not only self-defeating, but hurt the community?
MCTV does a great job of taping public meetings on the Coastside. They’ve done it for decades and for scant rewards. MCTV’s camera operators are out there every night of the week with camera and tripod, when they could be home with their families. They provide a valuable service and we’re lucky to have them working for us. But the fruits of their labor could be more accessible to the Coastside community:
- Because the meetings are cablecast gavel-to-gavel, you have to watch two or three (or four or five or more!) hours of blah-blah-blah to see the agenda item you’re interested in. That is, if you know it’s coming before MCTV transmits it. You could tape it, but that’s not an ideal solution either.
- If you miss it—because you didn’t remember, or you didn’t know in time that something interesting was going on, or your VCR jammed, or Comcast was on the fritz, or you were just too busy at work to get home in time—you’re out of luck. Unless you pay MCTV $30 in advance for a DVD to be created just for you and delivered at some date in the future. That is, of course, if you’re able to catch them on the phone or in their office. As a nonprofit, their office hours are pretty irregular. Last year, I left a message asking if they had a recording of a particular meeting. I never heard back from them.
- If you don’t have cable—because you prefer satellite, you can’t get cable, or don’t own a TV—you’re out of luck. Unless you buy DVD’s of every meeting from MCTV.
- MCTV’s schedule is idiosyncratic. Sometimes meetings are transmitted the next day, sometimes it takes a week. You can’t predict when they will be shown. Today, as I write this, MCTV’s schedule is inaccessible from their website—but you can get it here on Coastsider.
- MCTV’s approach made more sense in 1985 than it does now. Video on the Internet has changed everything. And MCTV has not kept up.
In order to remain absolutely neutral, MCTV commits to cablecasting meetings from beginning to end. That’s commendable. But, the truth is that only a small portion of what MCTV shows can be described as newsworthy.
Coastsider wants to digitize just those portions of MCTV’s recordings that are newsworthy and make those available to the public on the Web. This not only solves the problems outlined above, but puts local government meeting in a context where they can be seen by many more people—at their convenience—and understood by a wider range of the community. We tried to do that once and MCTV’s lawyer (Executive Director Connie Malach’s husband Mike Day) ordered us to take it down.
We want MCTV to let anyone who’s interested redistribute their recordings. The reasons for this are ethical, practical, and legal.
What won’t MCTV share?
MCTV’s arguments for not sharing their recordings with the public don’t hold up to scrutiny.
They don’t want to be perceived as partisan. That’s understandable, but If they acknowledge that their recordings are public documents, and therefore public property, they can treat everyone the same. This is a completely neutral position.
MCTV is afraid of losing revenue. They have never quantified the value of lost DVD sales, so it’s hard to know what they’d really lose. But is the loss of a few thousand dollars a year is worth compromising their principles? Could they make it up with goodwill and fundraising if they were more open with the community? Aren’t they adequately compensated for their work by the government boards who are paying the lion’s share of their budget?
MCTV says it’s improper because Coastsider is a commercial operation. Well, that’s true as far as it goes. But I’d be willing to bet that MCTV makes more selling ads than Coastsider does. Coastsider operates at a loss, but Connie Malach draws salary from MCTV. Ironically, Coastsider has always explicitly licensed anyone to reproduce our work as long as they give us credit. Finally, this is not about money. It’s about public service. Coastsider could make a lot more money doing something (anything) other than streaming videos of government meetings.
MCTV says they’ll do it themselves. MCTV has no plan for making this material available on the Web. And even if they did, there is no guarantee that result would be archived indefinitely, accessible by agenda item, or available in a timely fashion. Besides, allowing the public to redistribute these recordings does not preclude MCTV from doing it as well.
Why should MCTV allow the public to use their videos?
The arguments in favor of working with Coastsider—or anyone else who wants to redistribute MCTV’s content—are based on public service.
It’s what they were chartered to do. Broadening the distribution of their public meeting recordings would increase their impact on the community and increase the community’s awareness of its government.
It’s the right thing to do. There is no responsible, community-minded argument for keeping this material off the Web.
It will cost them nothing. It will require zero work or money on MCTV’s part. We’ll share the credit with them because we appreciate their hard work. All they have to do is get out of the way.
The public pays for MCTV. Cable customers pay franchise fees that are collected by Comcast as a separate line item on their cable bill, above and beyond what Comcast’s advertised price. That money is passed on to the county and the city of Half Moon Bay, who in turn give it to MCTV. So, while cable fees are passed on, the truth is that MCTV’s budget comes from the general funds of local government.
The boards pay the direct cost of creating the recordings. More on this later, but we believe that this makes these recordings public documents.
What do we think they’re really afraid of?
We believe MCTV is motivated by fear of their funders in government, and fear of irrelevance.
They fear their real funders. Half their revenue comes from the Half Moon Bay City Council. If they lost that revenue, they would be in a bad situation. They’re afraid if they assist in actual news coverage of the city council, they will lose that money. That’s the truth about their “neutrality” argument. Because they don’t depend on the public, they need to please the Board of Supervisors, Half Moon Bay City Council, and Comcast.
They fear the unknown. MCTV is like every other traditional rights-holder in the digital age. More than anything else, they fear the unknown. They’re afraid if they lose control of the material they create, it might be bad for them in some unknown way in the future.
They fear losing their channel. There are a dozen reasons why cablecasting meetings—while a hot idea in 1985—is a waste of bandwidth in 2007. We’ve examined a few already. I’m sure Comcast would love to have Channel 6 back in order to transmit some more remunerative network.
Does MCTV own the copyright on their recordings?
We don’t believe that MCTV can copyright their recordings. MCTV requires participating boards to pay for them to record their meetings. In fact, MCTV’s agreement with the city of Half Moon Bay says that if the city is unhappy with the quality of MCTV’s work, they’re free to pay someone else to do it. These recordings of public government meetings are paid for by the boards themselves, and are therefore public documents. Government agencies are spending public money to create recordings of public meetings. How could these recordings possibly be MCTV’s private property?
The public record should be owned by the public
MCTV performs an important public service. Even after they made us take down our experimental streaming clip, we supported them in their struggle to get their share of franchise fees fromt the county. MCTV’s board and officers are good people who are making bad decisions that are not only against the public interest, but legally suspect.
It’s time for Coastsiders to demand more public service from their public access station. It’s time for Coastsiders to demand the rights to recordings that they are paying for with their tax dollars and fees to government agencies. We own the recordings of these meetings and not MCTV.