Thursday, August 02, 2007

County Cable Montgomery

Last week, the Gazette had a curious article about County Cable Montgomery, the PEG channel that televises official county business such as county council hearings.

According to county spokesperson Patrick Lacefield,
"We are wanting to make the cable channel more accessible to folks. ... we’re trying make the programming more interesting and increase its relevance to the public."

According to the Gazette, the county believes that CCM does not "pique the interest of county youngsters" and the county is trying to change this. According to Donna Keating, CCM Program Manager:
"We are trying to be more responsive to our audience. We do not have access to Nielsen ratings, but we know that we have activists that look at the channel because of the number of replays for the council and town hall meetings... We believe that the missing piece is the young people."

All I can say is: Huh?

This is the county's government channel, not Disney or TNT. Why spend money trying to attract a different audience than the one you have? There are dozens of outlets for "young people" already. Actually, there are hundreds. More.

But how many outlets are there for local government functions? Committee meetings? Commissions? Park and Planning hearings? School Board meetings? Community Association Meetings? Court cases?

I would love it if I could see more than the county council meetings. But I can't unless I show up in person. And that's just unrealistic. Frequently, I only find out about something interesting having happened afterward. I can't go to meetings all day just in case something were to happen! Nor can I afford to show up and then wait an hour for the item of interest to me to occur, a frequent issue with council meetings.

But the solution isn't to put all these meetings on the government channel. The solution is to make them all available as podcasts or videocasts.

This would expand the ability to offer more government programming to an unlimited degree. Ten meetings at once? No problem, just generate ten podcasts.

And it would expand accessibility as well. One could argue that TV reaches a broader audience - after all, more people have TV's right? True but misleading. The Cable Office estimates that 230,000 households are capable of receiving the PEG channels. However, Montgomery County's own 2003 census reported that 274,000 households had internet access. And that census is four years old, so it is a sure bet that the number of households with internet access is even higher given the dramatic decrease in computer prices since that time. According to the HDTV Almanac, subscriptions for broadband services increased 21% just this year alone.

And I have to question how many people are even using their TVs to watch the meetings that are currently broadcast. I sure don't use mine. I have never watched the government channel on my TV. Never. But I know plenty of people who watch it at their computers. After all, most of my waking day is spent at work anyway. I don't have a TV on my desk there but I do have a computer. So if I need to watch a government meeting in real-time, it is likely going to be during office hours. I appreciate that some people work from home - indeed, I occasionally telecommute myself but even then, I'm in front of my computer, not my TV.

Without data, we are left to speculate how many people watch the PEGs using their TV. It is accepted wisdom that you can not optimize what you cannot measure. Alas, that doesn't appear to be stopping the county. Indeed, the only statistics cited by Donna are the number of downloads, not the number of TV viewers. Last time I checked, the franchisees do not report PEG viewership. And if the PEG network has any kind of TV viewership statistics, I'd be very surprised because in all the years that I served on the county's cable advisory committee, our requests for this information were repeatedly rebuffed - the claim: Franchisees don't supply the information - and the alternatives (surveys by phone or paper mail) are either too expensive or lack effective response rates.

Besides improved access and a larger selection of material, another advantage to digital distribution is that it is cheaper to the franchisees. And the county pays nothing for the internet feed since it is a benefit of the franchise contracts. But there's no reason to. The packets invariably stay on the local franchise networks since they're delivered only to Montgomery County residents. Thus, the costs to the franchisees are nil.

Back to the issue of the county's concern over the reaching youngsters - I still don't get it. Although demographics are what matter to commercial stations, they should not be of such concern to a government station. Government's job is to release information. Sure, it should also be in a form that is understood. But it doesn't have to be translated into kid-speak. It doesn't have to be dumbed down.

The kids aren't watching anyway. When I was a kid, I used to come home from school and flick on the TV. But I see my own daughter and her friends - all they want is to download videos from YouTube and other content sites. And I can see why. Sure the video quality leaves a lot to be desired but the kids get a much bigger selection to choose from (as well as being able to upload content) and they want that ability. On the whole, it is a much more enjoyable experience and it is the future of video. Not a traditional fixed TV channel.

I do appreciate the TV channel isn't going away. However the county needs to think long and hard about the most effective way to make use of a channel like CCM. According to Patrick, new programming includes more "newsmagazine-ish" material in an attempt to make the programs more interesting. "We have the ability to go live a little more now and be doing more live programming at county events." Don't forget video streaming, Patrick. I've used the County's video streaming capabilities and they're where you should be putting our precious tax dollars. That and digital archives, suitable for podcasts and videocasts. We don't need "newsmagazine-ish" formats. Just give us a high-quality raw feed. Call it CSPAN-Local. If you don't know what I mean, you need to watch CSPAN, Patrick! This is what citizens want, not predigested pablum.

Oh, and about CCM TV? How about leasing it back to the franchisees or sublet it ourselves. Even in the wee hours of the morning, there are bound to be idiotic infomercial producers who are willing to pay good money - money that you could then use to further enhance the podcast/videocasts and video streaming that would truly benefit Montgomery County.