When George McCollough joined Princeton Community Television in 2005, the channel had about three hours of programming per day and was run by the Borough of Princeton. Now McCollough is the executive director of the station, which has become a nonprofit that broadcasts 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with hundreds of members and about 40 who regularly produce their own TV shows at the station’s studios at 1 Monument Drive.
Tune in to Princeton Community Television at any given time and you are likely to see one of the offbeat shows made by community members. You might catch “Duos and Dont’s,” a fashion show hosted by Mindy and Paula Shapiro, the Style Duo Twins. Or perhaps “Pro Se Nation,” which offers advice to people who want to represent themselves in court. On a recent episode of the “Aphrodisiac Chefs,” the hosts whipped up a menu of “smashed meaty loaf sliders” to be washed down by a “citrus copulation.” There was also, until recently, gavel-to-gavel coverage of local municipal meetings, for those interested in town politics. If you haven’t seen it, imagine a mixture of “Wayne’s World,” “Tim & Eric Awesome Show Great Job,” and C-Span. It’s the kind of eclectic brew of shows that you would find on any thriving public access station anywhere in the country — in places where such institutions still exist.
One thing you won’t see on Princeton Community Television is commercials or fundraising drives. Since the vast majority of the station’s budget comes from public funding, there is no need to interrupt the programming to advertise or raise cash.
But the future of Princeton Community Television is in doubt, as the town council has decided to eliminate the station’s $232,000 annual funding.
Princeton Community Television was founded in 1997 using money the town collected from cable TV providers as compensation for being allowed to serve customers within town limits. At the time, the law required these cable franchise fees to be used to support community television.
Soon afterwards, the law was changed to allow towns to either use the money for community television or for property tax relief. Princeton opted to continue to support its TV station but spun it off into a nonprofit whose budget was covered by the franchise fees.
That’s how it was until last month, when the latest contract between the town and the TV station expired, and the township decided to no longer fund the station at all.
At first the township offered a new deal: The station would be weaned off of all public funding over several years and left to its own devices. Lew Goldstein, board chair of Princeton Community Television, came back with a counter-offer. Rather than make another counter-offer, the township chose to walk away from the table altogether, said township councilman David Cohen, who led the negotiations.
“We value TV 30 and we think they do good things for the community. But there are many nonprofits in town that do great stuff for the community, but the township does not fund them.”
Cohen said that Princeton property taxes have gotten so painful that the use of funds for the TV station instead of tax relief could no longer be justified. “We offered to gradually reduce our subsidy over the next couple of years and keep on paying them a fixed amount to televise our municipal meetings,” he said.
Cohen made clear the offer was of the take-it-or-leave-it variety. He does not believe the TV station has any bargaining leverage to make the town consider counter-offers. Since the failed negotiations in April, the township has been filming municipal meetings itself and posting them on the town website, at a cost that Cohen says is cheaper than what it had offered to pay TV 30 for the service.
However, he did not rule out resuming bargaining with the TV station if it came back to the table.
McCollough said almost the entire budget of Princeton Community TV was paid for by the franchise fees. The rest was covered by members, who pay a small membership fee and in return get to use the TV studio and its equipment.
Princeton Community Television’s tax forms show that the majority of its budget goes towards paying its small staff. In 2017 it paid a total of $146,671 in compensation. The staff includes McCollough, operations manager Sharyn Alice Murray, and production associate Markian Bek. Rent for the station’s space in Monument Hall was about $20,000 that year, and the rest went towards various other expenses.
McCollough is a veteran of community television. His father died young and he ended up moving around a lot as a kid, living in Virginia, Chicago, and Philadelphia. He studied film at Temple University and got his start in television at Drexel’s public access channel in Philadelphia.
The total amount of Princeton Community Television’s budget is relatively small compared to the town of Princeton’s $38 million budget — if the cost were divided evenly among all the town’s households, it would be about $23 a year.
Despite its relatively small cost, Cohen says the taxpayers of Princeton shouldn’t be responsible for paying for it anymore. One reason for cutting Princeton Television’s funding is that would-be TV show hosts now have a plethora of Internet-based alternatives. Anyone with a phone or a computer and an Internet connection now has the ability to create their own TV show and broadcast it to the world.
Princeton Community Television has kept up with the times, technologically. In addition to broadcasting on Verizon and Comcast, viewers can stream individual TV shows on Vimeo or catch the TV station live on its website at www.princetontv.org. The channel can be accessed on Roku and Apple TV, and McCollough hopes to expand to Amazon Fire Stick soon.
This expansion to digital media has given the station the ability to do something that was impossible back when it was broadcast over the airwaves: a good way to see how many people are watching. The station’s social media accounts now get millions of impressions a year, McCollough says.
And multiple residents have written letters to the editor in support of continuing to fund Princeton Community Television, another metric of how many people the station is reaching.
In a letter about the station losing its funding, Princeton TV member Natasha Sherman, who hosts a life coaching show, said a recent show of hers made a big impact:
“In the past year I did three shows on scleroderma, a devastating disease that is considered incurable. A Princeton physician working with my guest, Jane, suggested medication that was not available in the U.S. at that time. As a result, Jane is a walking miracle; as of now, the first person we know of who is cured of scleroderma. Partly because of Jane being unstoppable as an advocate for finding a cure, and because of the attention she got from doing the interviews and spreading the word, as of January, 2019, the medication she used has now been made available in the U.S.,” she wrote.
“Recently, there was a statement made indicating that the reason Princeton was refusing to continue allocating the monies to sustain Princeton Community Television was that they had a commitment to providing taxpayer relief. How does an annual budget of $232,000 provide significant taxpayer relief?”
But it’s not about the numbers for TV proponents. “We are the only local broadcast outlet on cable television,” McCollough says. “I think it’s important to have local programming on there.”
This focus on serving the community allows the channel to broadcast programs that would never be commercially viable. “It doesn’t matter if some program reaches an audience of thousands of people, or only two or three people,” he says. “Our goal is to get people to be able to make the programs they want without any judgment of the programs. For example, we have a program called ‘Navigate Autism’ that is for parents with kids with autism to help give them resources to better serve their kids. It might not have a lot of people watching, but for the people who do watch, it’s extremely important.”
McCollough describes this approach as “low pressure TV.” There is no pressure to produce shows with good ratings that will appeal to advertisers.
That is not to say that everything is low quality. A documentary made through the station’s Community Partners Project covered the teen pregnancy support program of the Trenton Public School District. The film ended up winning best documentary at the Nassau Film Festival (coordinated by Goldstein).
The Community Partners Project is a training program that pairs professional filmmakers with community organizations to help them make documentaries about themselves (U.S. 1, October 7, 2015). The program started in 2015 with profiles of Princeton Community Housing and the Princeton Youth Ballet and expanded from there: Princeton TV provides equipment and expertise, and the nonprofits provide only labor.
But what role does a TV station like this have in a media environment where people who want to make shows can just do it themselves online?
“One other thing that’s really coloring the governing body’s attitude is how much the media environment has changed since 10 years ago, when public access TV was really a crucial way for citizens to get video programming distributed,” Cohen says. “If you had people in town who had shows that were of interest to the public and they wanted to share them with people, you needed public access TV to be able to do that. Nowadays with YouTube and online free services, basically anybody who wants to can put together an interview show and put it on YouTube and compete in the marketplace of similar shows. And if it’s good, and people want to watch it, they get the exposure that they want.”
McCollough noted that the TV station does more than just give people a way to distribute content. It also provides studio space and training. Community members can sign up for classes on podcasting, video production, and use of cameras, ranging in cost from $15 to $65.
The battle over funding, then, is a question of whether the station should be “low pressure” for its members or if the show creators should “compete in the marketplace,” which would likely result in a vastly different approach to making shows. Cohen suggested the station could raise money by commercializing itself and selling ads on its popular shows online. Alternatively, he said, they could raise more money from viewers in pledge drives like they do on public television and radio stations. He admits, however, that as a viewer, he finds these pledge drives annoying.
McCollough pointed out that the public television fundraising model has led to public TV stations airing shows that were not exactly local. “There’s only so many TV stations that can run British sitcoms,” he said. He also said he wanted to keep membership fees as low as possible so that anyone could come make a show even if they were of low economic means. Right now fees are only $35 a year for an individual, $150 for a nonprofit, and $250 for a business.
Cohen said it was unfair to ask the entirety of Princeton taxpayers to pay higher rates so that “200 people in Princeton” as well as viewers in surrounding towns can enjoy uninterrupted community programming. He also said it was unfair that surrounding townships got to see the shows without contributing anything, and that many Princeton TV creators and members are from outside of town.
McCollough counters this line of argument by pointing out that many township employees come from outside of the town as well.
Public access TV in the U.S. was bolstered by the 1984 Cable Act, which allowed municipalities to collect franchise fees. In the wake of this act, small TV stations like TV 30 sprang up all over the country. But in recent years, they have been dying off. Los Angeles shut down its public access stations a decade ago. In March, in a situation remarkably similar to the current dilemma in Princeton, Columbia, Missouri, lost its only public access station after the city government cut its $200,000 to $0 over a period of several years. The station was unable to raise substantial money from private sources and shut down.
The entire dispute, however, may be rendered moot: The FCC is considering changing the amount of fees that municipalities can charge to cable companies, which could result in the funding drying up in any case.
Goldstein said the staff at the station is nervous about the possibility of layoffs and downsizing. He vowed that Princeton TV would go on no matter what. “Princeton TV will continue to run because we will reach out to other communities and to private individuals who have a high interest in making sure Princeton TV continues to thrive for the next generation,” he said. “We just want the mayor and council to come on board as supporters in this instead of trying to demonize us for doing the right thing.”
Princeton Community Television, 1 Monument Drive, Princeton 08540. 609-252-1963. George McCollough, executive director. www.princetontv.org.