Jefferson schools urged to use cable TV station

February 14, 2017 GMT

JEFFERSON — The Jefferson community has two dedicated cable television channels, provided by Charter Communications as part of its service contract. The city channel has regular programming, but the channel dedicated to the school district has gone unused for the past few years.

It’s true that people now have many other sources for local news, from the Daily Union to the school district website to social networking sites, but the school district is letting a potential asset go untapped.

So asserted John Foust, a board member with the state’s community cable association who has been involved with the community cable station on the city side since its inception.

Foust addressed the School District of Jefferson Board of Education Monday. On the agenda as an informational item only, the issue was not up for a vote, but it could come back for consideration at a future meeting.

“I’m here to remind you of an underused resource that can help the school district show the public what you are doing,” Foust said.

He noted that the community has exclusive use of two cable channels via Charter, channels 987 and 988.

The local community cable station started in 2005 as a successful collaboration between the City of Jefferson and the school district, Foust said. When it started, one station was dedicated for use by the school district and one for public access and government.

A committee of the Jefferson Common Council oversees the station, and the school district has a seat on that committee.

However, Foust said, the school district has not used its channel for the last several years.

He encouraged district decisionmakers to reconsider using the district’s local cable channel as one more means to get out the word about happenings within the school district and to expand the district’s use of video.

“To put it simply, the channel is a place where you can freely advertise 24 hours a day,” he said, asserting that this would be a good place to provide information on any future referenda, to promote the district as an open enrollment destination, and to inform all taxpayers, not just those with schools in the district, about the good things the Jefferson schools are doing.

“How many parents work second shift and can’t attend their child’s choir concert or team sport?” Foust asked. “That can change if you start to record and play them on cable and the Internet.”

But first, he said, these events need to be recorded. He noted that anything recorded for local cable also could be shared on the Internet.

The local cable channel could help parents of middle-schoolers learn about the opportunities their children will have in high school, he said.

“How many times have you spoken to a parent who wished they could have attended a past school board meeting to see how an issue was discussed and decided?” Foust asked. “They could watch a video if you start to record meetings.”

Foust said that around 60 percent of homeowners subscribe to cable, and that programs played in Jefferson actually reach surrounding communities, as well.

“A program played on Jefferson’s channel reaches more than 15,000 homes, with more than 40,000 viewers in other nearby communities,” he said.

This could be a good tool for promoting the district as an open-enrollment destination, as people in surrounding communities learn about the programs, opportunities and achievements of the Jefferson schools.

A lot has changed since the community cable channels got their start in 2005, Foust said.

At their inception, the station equipment was located at the high school. In 2011, the station’s equipment moved to city hall as Jefferson High School broke ground on its expansion and remodeling project.

Now, the cable stations have an office in Jefferson City Hall, a part-time station manager position, and two part-time camera operators, as well as upgraded cameras, tripods, microphones and computers for video editing.

“The station is positively regarded by the mayor and council,” Foust asserted. “It is reasonably well-funded, with a budget of just over $20,000 per year.

He said that Mayor Dale Oppermann developed the system that currently prevails, in which half of the cable program’s budget comes from the city coffers (via Charter subscriber dollars designated for that purpose) and the other half is raised by the station itself.

“If you look in the fine print of your cable bill, the city collects a few percent as a franchise fee,” Foust said, giving that amount as around $95,000 per year.

“Like many cities, Jefferson uses some of this revenue to support the station,” he said. “The station also raises money for its budget through underwriting of programs, and by selling DVDs.”

The cable program also receives money from Jefferson County since it has begun to tape and play county board meetings, Foust said. The county requires the station to send DVDs of county board meetings to the other community cable stations in the county so it’s not just shown in Jefferson.

The station also has a reserve fund of $30,000 set aside to buy the next generation of video servers and equipment in the year ahead, he said.

The city channel currently plays recordings of concerts at Rotary Waterfront Park, Gemuetlichkeit Days events and parades.

“For several years, we recorded the high school football and basketball games,” he said, noting that the station has a library of hundreds of programs from past years.

Many improvements have been made since the station got its start, Foust said.

“I remember learning that there was only one video camera at the high school, and it was locked in the principal’s desk,” he said. “Today, most people carry a pretty good video camera in their pocket.”

Serving as the first station equipment were two spare computers that ran a PowerPoint slideshow of announcements. By 2006, the station had a stack of programmable DVD players, and by 2008, it had a video server.

Up until a few years ago, Foust said, the school station material came from each of the principals, who contributed a few slides of information per month. A teacher put the slides together into a single slideshow and copied it to the station computer.

That slideshow got broadcast when no other program was playing.

In the intervening years, the School District of Jefferson has done a great job of expanding into social media, informing the public through Facebook, upgraded school websites, district promotional videos and more.

Foust encouraged school officials to think of the local cable channel as one more outlet for the material the district is already creating.

He noted that the district has uploaded about 30 videos to its district Facebook page in the past two years. The high school has put up about 150 videos on its Facebook page, and East, West, and the middle school have all put up local video content, too.

The Jefferson High School mass media class has a couple of dozen videos on its YouTube channel, as well as its Facebook page, he said.

Meanwhile, the local schools have uploaded vast quantities of photos, 538 for the district, 683 for the high school, 3,700 for the middle school, 1,000 for East and 500 for West.

“You’re already taking the pictures and the videos and deciding what to upload,” Foust said. “We just need to expand your process to send all this to your channel on Charter.”

He said the district should consider recording school board meetings to replay on cable, as do many districts.

“Yes, at first, everyone feels a little funny about being on camera, but it soon becomes no more disruptive than someone taking the minutes. You still control when the camera is running and which meetings get recorded.”

Foust said the city station could do the recordings itself, as it does for the county board, at the cost of a few hundred dollars per meeting, which would include the equipment, the recording, simple titles (as in “2/13/17 school board meeting,”) editing and uploading the videos on the server.

The school district could choose to do this recording itself. It would require a camera, a tripod, a way to connect to the board’s sound system and someone to operate the camera, then upload the information to the server.

“You can also upload the video to YouTube for people who don’t have cable,” Foust said.

“Again, this is well within the skill set of staff and students who are already uploading videos to Facebook,” he said.

No one needs to travel to Jefferson City Hall to make this happen, as a network link still exists over the school’s fiber between the city station and the high school. Computers and the video server can be programmed remotely over that network or the Internet, he said.

“Through being on the board of the state association of community channels, I’ve seen up close how 50 other communities in Wisconsin operate their school and city channels,” Foust said, noting that every community is different in terms of how the stations are funded, staffed and operated.

After Foust’s presentation, school board members had a few questions.

One wondered where the rest of the $95,000 in station fees that Charter subscribers pay the city goes, beyond the amount that goes toward the community cable program’s $20,000 budget.

“General revenue,” Foust said.

Board member Dick Lovett asked whether programming is run in a continuous loop or whether there’s “dead air.”

Foust said that the Jefferson station is currently in the process of recruiting a new station manager, and how the programming is run is up to that person.

The last station manager, he said, treated the community cable channel like a regular station, running church services and city council meetings at regular and predictable times and putting up community announcements when no other programming was running.

“The resource of that channel is there for you 24/7,” Foust said, noting that taking advantage of this asset could be as easy as assembling 10 minutes of prerecorded content and re-running it on the hour every hour.

Lovett then asked what kind of viewership a local cable channel would get, expressing doubt that very many people would watch.

“The Nielsen Ratings don’t percolate down to community channels,” Foust said with a smile. “The truth is, very few people are watching any given program at any given time, given all the options that are out there.”

Even a Disney movie running over the Christmas holidays which came out on top of the Nielsen ratings, would only have around 15 viewers in a city this size, he said.

“You’ve got to build that process,” he said. “Let people know it’s out there.”’

Board member David Hollenberger asked what it would cost to run the material the district already has produced.

“There’s really no cost,” Foust said.

Asked what quality of video was required, Foust said that community cable channels still operate on “standard definition,” not HD. The top stations have commercial quality production, he said, but in his mind, getting the content out there and letting people see them was more important than having flawless images.

That’s what community cable is all about after all: community access.

Scott Buth, school board president, said that Foust’s presentation had given him something to think about.

“I thought it would be kind of a waste, living out in the ‘hinterlands’ as I do (with no cable,)” he said.