The end of the long-running local cable TV series, “Inside Loudoun County,” , is just one example of a larger trend. The era of producing original local cable programming – other than coverage of public meetings – appears to be coming to an end.
This is an observation, not a lament. With the advent of inexpensive equipment for recording video and audio, and free social media for sharing videos, there is no longer the demand for local cable programming that existed even a few years ago.
I confess to being somewhat nostalgic for the glory days of local cable programming, however. It was cable television that first drew me to local government nearly 30 years ago.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, communities across America were being wired, and cable companies were engaged in heavy competition for lucrative franchises. One of the sweeteners in many cable proposals was the offering of free support to produce programming on PEG (public, educational and governmental) channels.
I was hired by a small city in Los Angeles County to help administer the franchise it had just awarded to a large media company. Part of my job involved monitoring the build-out of the system and making sure the cable operator lived up to the promises it had made while competing for the franchise.
After the cable system was complete, and the local channels activated, my job shifted to include the production of programming for the city’s cable channel.
We produced programs about public affairs, crime prevention, and city services, and covered youth sports, elections and special events. For a while, we even produced a local newscast.
The city also promoted the use of public and educational channels. We met regularly with representatives of local school districts and community colleges to help them make use of their channels.
The public access channel attracted dozens of amateur television producers who created all kinds of programs and competed for honors in an annual Emmy-style awards program.
Loudoun County never seemed to have the appetite for local programming that I had experienced in California. Public access was never heavily promoted, and governmental and educational programming focused mostly on public meetings.
Occasionally I would put together a budget proposal for funds to hire staff so that we could produce more programs for the government channel, but those funding requests were never successful. Scripting, shooting and editing quality video programming is labor intensive, and the monthly “Inside Loudoun County” was the one regular program we could manage with the small staff we had in the county’s Public Information Office.
More than a decade ago, Cablevision of Loudoun, a forerunner of Comcast in Loudoun County, was heavily committed to programming its local commercial channel, which it saw as a way to attract subscribers and bring in advertising revenue.
At that time, Cablevision billed its Channel 3 as “All Loudoun, All the Time.” It produced a variety of programs and, for a while, even a nightly newscast.
Cablevision also saw PEG channels as a way to offer subscribers a product they could not get from broadcast channels or satellite companies. If people wanted truly local television, they needed cable TV.
The Cablevision franchise was eventually taken over by Adelphia, followed by Comcast – large corporations that were less committed to the production of local programming. But Comcast continued to meet its franchise obligations to support PEG programming.
The situation changed dramatically when Verizon entered the picture as a direct competitor to Comcast. Verizon had no interest in producing local programming, and was able to take advantage of changes in state law when negotiating its franchise agreement with the county.
Under the new law, Verizon could not be required to provide a studio, equipment, or staff for the production of programming, and it chose not to. And when Comcast’s franchise expired, it could not be held to a higher standard than Verizon.
Comcast has evidently decided that the return on producing original local programming is not worth the investment in staff time and overhead. So Comcast will no longer make its staff, studio or equipment available for the production of PEG programming.
In this year’s budget process, the approved funding to hire staff to operate cameras so that its meetings could still be telecast.
So this appears to be the future of local programming in Loudoun County, at least in the near future – meetings of the Board of Supervisors, School Board, Leesburg Town Council and other public bodies. No studio is needed for these, and not much staff.
But local cable programming is not quite dead yet. Some proponents of local television are trying to bring the county and the Town of Leesburg together to pool resources on a studio and television equipment. Although it may be a long shot, I will be interested in following their progress.