The days of free broadcasts of City Council meetings on cable TV are over.
City Council was told Monday night that Spectrum Cable will no longer broadcast its twice-monthly meetings for free on local access Channel 11.
City Information Technology Director Matthew Simpson told council that Spectrum will charge the city almost $10,000 a year to broadcast its two meetings every month. Spectrum also plans to charge the city a one-time fee of almost $5,500 for “infrastructure” upgrades to improve the quality of the cable broadcasts, Simpson said.
The news did not sit well with City Council, particularly Councilor Michael Brooks who accused Spectrum of holding Elizabeth City “hostage.”
“Spectrum is strong-arming us,” Brooks said.
Brooks asked city officials and fellow councilors “what leverage” the city has over Spectrum.
Councilor Billy Caudle responded that Spectrum’s “cables run” on the city’s utility poles and that the cable provider pays the city a fee for the right to do that.
Interim City Manager Ralph Clark said the arrangement is called a “pole attachment fee” and that he would review the current attachment rate and bring that information back to council.
“It’s an annual fee to use a pole,” Clark said.
Simpson said a change to state law now doesn’t require cable TV providers like Spectrum to provide the city the free service of broadcasting governmental meetings.
“They have chosen to not only charge us a reoccurring monthly fee, but also an installation fee,” Simpson said. “Spectrum Cable is no longer going to offer this as a free public service. We really don’t have a choice but to comply.”
City officials have been bombarded with complaints about the quality of the current cable broadcasts, both the audio and the video.
“It is terrible,” Simpson said.
Simpson said the current problems are a result of damage to a cable somewhere between City Hall and a radio tower on Wellfield Road.
“They refused to fix the existing infrastructure, saying they didn’t own it initially,” Simpson said, referring to Spectrum.
Councilor Jeannie Young wondered if the city could save money by dropping the cable broadcast and instead use the livestream on the city’s website and Facebook page.
“I know other different agencies just livestream,” Young said. “We could do that and it wouldn’t cost us anything.”
Simpson said that was an option but added that many older city residents still watch meetings on cable TV.
“We have a lot of senior citizens and they are more accustomed to watching television,” Simpson said. “It’s kind of tough to tell those citizens, ‘Hey, you can no longer watch the council meetings on TV.”
Young agreed that was something to think about but said the price Spectrum is going to charge is “steep.” She also asked Simpson to bring back data on how many citizens watch the cable TV broadcasts.
“It would probably have to be a survey that we conduct on our own,” Simpson said. ‘We would probably be able to get a good grasp on how many people are watching.”
Caudle asked City Attorney William Morgan if the city is legally required to broadcast its meetings on cable television. Morgan said he would have to research the matter.
Spectrum officials say the public, educational and governmental channels are included in its cable lineup at no additional charge and will continue to be. They are currently offered in standard-definition, the format in which Spectrum receives the telecast from City Council.
Spectrum said the city approached the company about carrying the channel in a high-definition format instead, and the proposal provided reflects the one-time and recurring costs of the infrastructure necessary to carry the channel in HD.