PRINCETON, NJ - December 18, 2019 - Despite driving rains, over 60 people came out to the Princeton town council meeting in support of Princeton Community Television (PCTV) on Monday to ask Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert and members of Town Council to release cable franchise fees to avoid the shutdown of their beloved community public access station, PCTV, located at 1 Monument Drive, Princeton. Taking turns at the podium, supporters had their chance to address the mayor and council.
“As best as we could, we tried to keep our members informed about what’s going on, but it came to a point where they wanted to have their own say,” said PCTV Executive Director George McCollough. “So we invited everyone who was a member or supporter of Princeton TV to come down and speak. We had a great turnout.”
“I think for the first time, the mayor and council heard directly from individuals who produce shows and are members of PCTV as well as community members and members of non-profits, giving them a better understanding of why this issue is so important,” said PCTV Chairman of the Board Lew Goldstein. “The mayor and council keep saying PCTV is a unique place, well-managed, fiscally responsible and attentive to the needs of the community. If they truly believe this, then they’ll release the remainder of the funds, similar to last year, so that PCTV can keep operating.”
Verizon and Comcast cable are required by law to contribute a portion of the money they collect from cable customers to support local public access stations. It is up to the township to either use the franchise fees for public access television or for taxpayer relief. Up until now, Princeton has passed these franchise fees onto PCTV. Lempert says the cable franchise fees could benefit the taxpayers, adding that PCTV should concentrate on fundraising efforts.
“The amount of cable franchise fees that pass through the town is substantial, about $250,000 a year,” said Lempert. “Although originally intended to support local broadcasting, state law now allows this money to be put towards taxpayer relief. The vast majority of municipalities use this money to support local stations but now, for a lot of reasons, because we’re all facing budgetary challenges, we have to make difficult decisions.”
Goldstein says PCTV does not cost Princeton residents any money.
“Princeton TV is funded by cable franchise fees,” Goldstein said. “PCTV is not in the municipal budget. The only thing that’s in the municipal budget is the revenue that the town takes from PCTV cable franchise fees of $100,000, and that’s passed by ordinance every year. Also the town charges PCTV $18,000 in rent every year, which comes out of the cable franchise fees that we pay back to the town. PCTV did not cost Princeton residents any money last year, this year or next year because we are not part of the municipal budget as was originally designed by the governing bodies of Princeton Borough and Princeton Township from the beginning. They found a way to establish a community access station without costing taxpayers money through the use of the franchise fees.”
Lempert says that most nonprofits in Princeton are funded privately, therefore PCTV should not be any different.
“We don’t have the capacity to be supporting nonprofits by the municipal government,” Lempert said. “In 2015, the municipality initiated a four year contract with PCTV with the amount of funding reducing each year, and the conversations that were had at the time were to encourage PCTV to do more private fundraising, so we’d be in a better position when this day came.”
“I think it’s reasonable for the municipality to ask PCTV to fundraise,” added Councilman Timothy Quinn. “Every public radio program that I listen to lists a laundry list of corporate sponsors and foundations who fund the program to make it possible. We made the request before my time on council that PCTV ramp up their fundraising, and I don’t know that there’s evidence that that significantly happened.”
Goldstein says he disagrees with the assumption that PCTV has not been fundraising.
“It was brought up by the mayor and council tonight that PCTV has not been fundraising,” said Goldstein. “That is misinformation and a misstatement. PCTV has been fundraising since before I began hosting my show on PCTV in 2011. What needs to be clarified is that PCTV is a station that operates solely without the benefit of municipal support.”
“PCTV has taken a 10% decrease in the amount of cable franchise fees the station receives in each of the last three years,” added Goldstein. “We have had to also layoff a full-time and a part-time employee this year due to the unwillingness of the town to release funding to PCTV.”
Goldstein went on to say that PCTV is an award-winning station, known throughout the Northeast for local media production, giving opportunities for individuals to voice their comments and have free speech in a time when local press coverage is diminishing.
“The whole concept of public access TV years ago, the founders, which were the two governing bodies of Princeton prior to consolidation, realized the need to have residents be informed about what’s going on in the town,” Goldstein said. “What the mayor and council are doing right now is exactly the opposite. Unfortunately, without the proper funding, this mayor and council are looking to basically throw away one of the jewels of this town. PCTV is a place that has been the birthplace of filmmakers who have gone on to win awards, who have made award-winning documentaries by learning their craft at PCTV, who have built bridges with communities around the region as well as in the world.”
During the meeting, council voted to approve a resolution releasing funds in the amount of $56,962.00 from the first quarter of 2019 for services provided to the town by PCTV.
“The vote tonight was to approve the payment to PCTV of the first quarter payment that was owed to Princeton TV since April 1,” McCollough said. “So they approved releasing the franchise fees for services rendered by PCTV in covering the council meetings, the planning board meetings, the zoning board meetings and all the other services that we provide in keeping the municipal access station going in this town.”
PCTV has been a thriving part of the Princeton community for over twenty years, offering a platform for nonprofits and others to voice their cause and raise awareness. The station provides student internships to college students, high school students, and Princeton University students.
Ongoing classes enrich the lives of many looking to learn video production and digital media, including podcasting, video camera, audio, lighting, editing, on-air presence, photography, green screen, and other special classes for students, adults, seniors and veterans. Without proper funding, advocates say, these internships and classes would no longer be able to be offered by PCTV.
“I am here to support PCTV because of the importance that it has for the community, what it’s done, what I’ve seen when people come together,” said Colleen Kelly, Board member of PCTV. “It’s not just a place where people produce shows, to me, it’s more of an educational center. It’s a community gathering place. It’s a place where people come together and share ideas on social issues.”
“I came to the council meeting to let them know how important it is to keep PCTV,” said Sharon Levy, PCTV Producer of “Conversations with Lady Tea.” “It’s not only important for the immediate community, but across the world because what they’re doing is educating and empowering people on so many different levels. About a year ago, I was diagnosed with cancer. The station is critical in helping people share important topics like how to live a healthier in life.”
PCTV broadcasts to a potential audience of over 100 million people throughout the state of New Jersey, the nation and the world. The online page of PCTV averages over 90,000 clicks per month.
“If you look at the movie, ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ the question is what happens if PCTV disappears tomorrow,” Goldstein said. “What happens is all the work that we do with all the nonprofits, whether they be the League of Women Voters, who spoke at the council meeting, or the Princeton Public Schools, or the Witherspoon Jackson Development Corporation, or the Latin American Legal Defense and Education Fund, or the many environmental and literacy groups and Princeton University programs that we work with, those partnerships all disappear.”
PCTV has grown over the years into a multi-platform media distribution organization. Beyond its cablecast, the station reaches a wider audience via its online broadcast on its website, Vimeo, Roku, Apple TV & Amazon FireStick. Amazon recently selected PCTV to be the only public access station worldwide to be on Amazon FireStick.
On April 1, the township's negotiating committee unilaterally declared an impasse in the negotiations between the town and PCTV on a new three-year contract. The town's action left PCTV without any funding for 2019. PCTV had received $232,000 in cable franchise fees in 2018. In January, 2019, the town received a total of $369,000 in cable franchise fees for 2019 from Verizon and Comcast, representing 3% of the local franchise fees received by these companies from cable subscribers.
“In 2018, the municipality met numerous times with PCTV, and I don’t want to get into the details of negotiations, I think everybody knows that, unfortunately, negotiations broke down and we decided to move on from there,” Lempert said. “So I will say that it’s true that every other municipality in the state of New Jersey, we’re very rare in funding a public access station, and I think you’ll see that the station here has become a mecca for the surrounding communities.”
“As mayor, and I think a lot of my colleagues in council feel the same way, it’s not really fair to ask our taxpayers not to get the taxpayer relief when a lot of the people using the station are benefiting in their own communities,” Lempert said.
“If PCTV disappears, than it’s almost as if PCTV was not a priority of this mayor and council, which is a shame because many of them have been on PCTV, especially during the League of Women Voters debates at election time,” said Goldstein. “Each of them have benefited from PCTV and there’s never been a complaint about PCTV.”
Passionate pleas were heard from nonprofits, who have benefited from the station's ability to reach viewers and give their cause a voice.
“I think very highly of PCTV as a critical community resource that helps people that are in the Princeton area get our message out and help educate a wide audience,” Director of the NJ-based Coalition for Peace Action (CFPA) Reverend Robert Moore said. “They have videotaped many of our events. One video they produced had 50,000 views. I started up a podcast series with the support of PCTV earlier this year. The very first podcast was listened to by 11,000 people. I hope you’ll do everything you can to keep PCTV at full functionality.”
PCTV employees, PCTV board members, viewers, and several producers of the station's shows also addressed council asking them not to shut the lights out on the station.
“Tonight, we’ve come out in camaraderie to help support Princeton TV,” said Alfred Tard-El, Producer of “Moor Talk TV.” “We’re producers, we’re citizens, we’re residents, and what we believe is that a strong free press is our greatest weapon to get the message out, not just about Princeton Community, but about the nation’s community.”
“I was hired by the borough to manage PCTV, and shortly after that, the town formed a nonprofit, Princeton Community TV,” said McCollough. “The sole purpose of the nonprofit was to manage the facilities for the town, and I think we’ve done a really good job of doing that as far as my expectations. We have been very responsible with the franchise fees over the years.”
“What we produce at PCTV is very powerful content,” said Dr. Joan Goldstein, Producer of “Back Story with Joan Goldstein.” “This is our work. This is what our talent is like, and it’s a beautiful talent. The newspapers do an excellent job, but there’s something about TV, letting people speak for themselves, that’s powerful and informative. Please, think about how important this TV station is to this community who wants to know what’s going on in this community, so please support it.”
“I just wanted to share a story with you,” said PCTV Station Manager Sharyn Murray. “Two people came to Princeton Community TV without any prior knowledge about production. Together they started a television show. I don’t think either of them realized how far they would go. They ended up winning the 2017 documentary category at Nassau Film Festival. The subject that they chose to highlight was Centurion Ministries, which you are probably aware, helps to free wrongly incarcerated from prison. If that’s not a great example of community building, I don’t know what is.”
“I have been a producer at PCTV for about five years, and I have been trained by Sharyn and George, and they are the epitome of professionalism,” said Alfreda Richardson, Producer of “His Glorious Productions.” “The reason why we need to keep PCTV thriving for future generations is because I was able to bring forth a relevant program of breast cancer survival. Without PCTV we would not be able to share this information this pertinent info with this community. We need your support. We want to keep PCTV thriving.”
“You can see the emotion in everyone’s voices, the power of what they have to say, and the urgency of resolving this,” said Bob Kearns, Vietnam Veteran and PCTV supporter. “This is pure, very down to earth communication, guided to proficiency by a very talented technical staff.”
Even the youth of the community came out to stand at the podium and advocate for PCTV.
“I would like to talk about a Princeton Digital playground, a digital playground is a child friendly internet,” said 11-year-old Lisa Tang Sung. “We want this because the full scale internet is full of scams, disturbing images. A digital playground would not have those things. PCTV knows how to install a digital playground, by the way.”
PCTV has many programs that the town of Princeton would no longer have access to should the station be shutdown.
“The Community Partners Program is one of the things I’m most proud of concerning what the station has done,” Kelly said. “We take a couple of nonprofits and we pair them with filmmakers. We make a film about that nonprofit, showcase it and we have a big event. That nonprofit can use that film to raise awareness and raise funds. It’s been a wonderful program.”
Many PCTV programs bring invaluable information to viewers, raising awareness and building a lifeline for those who are searching for answers. Producers like Jane Lynn Britton, whose show, “Navigate Autism,” has drawn international attention, shared her thoughts.
“I am the mother of an 18-year-old son with autism,” said Britton. “After eight years and 20,000 hours of working one-on-one with my son, he learned to look at me, have a connection. Statistically, one in 59 children each year are diagnosed with autism. In New Jersey, it’s one in 35. I wanted to find a platform where I could share what I learned, and that was PCTV. Through my show, we are able to reach parents with children with autism and give them valuable resources as well as tips for what they can do for their children.
Lempert addressed the many supporters and residents of Princeton, saying, “PCTV is getting the relief from the cable franchise fees coming into their own town. Our job is to protect the municipality on various fronts, and I will say that we value the work that you do. We value the work of so many nonprofits in this town, but that doesn’t mean that when we’re making difficult budget decisions, we can afford $250,000, when that money could be spent for taxpayer relief.”
Lempert added that PCTV has vast reserves to draw upon, which PCTV says is not the case.
“There are substantial reserves that PCTV still has and the last we saw was upwards of a half million dollars of reserves,” Lempert said.
“They were claiming that we had a $500,000 surplus and that is not true, we’ve never had a $500,000 surplus,” said McCollough.
Longtime Princeton supporter Janet Wolinetz, who negotiated the original franchise fee agreement contract with Patriot, now Comcast, with Anne Reeves, fought hard to negotiate a contract in the 1980s
“New Jersey is one of two states that does not have public access TV,” said Wolinetz. “The importance of public access has reemerged as Governor Murphy is taking some of that $335 million that was auctioned off for public television, and signing a bill to provide $2 million for different public access stations across the state. So we lack something for news and we need to come back to this.”
“Every unit of government has honored that except for this particular one,” added Wolinetz. “We are one of two states that has no non-commercial stations. We have no PBS. If you stop all the funding, or not enough, you won’t get this back. We’re not like other nonprofits, we don’t have a building, we have a virtual home on the electronic spectrum.”
Goldstein said he feels there are very creative people on the council, and that after hearing from those who spoke at the meeting, he hopes they will reconsider and come back to the negotiating table.
"We’re asking the council to immediately reinstate negotiations after they left the table on April 1," Goldstein said. "We were bargaining with them in good faith, with their negotiating team on April 1, when the mayor got up and announced that the council negotiating team was unilaterally declaring an impasse in negotiations. She advised us that they were terminating services with PCTV as of April 1.”
“After 23 years of PCTV serving the community, the town’s negotiating team just got up and walked out of the room,” Goldstein said.
Councilwoman Leticia Fraga addressed PCTV supporters saying, “I thank you for coming. I’ve been very moved by all your comments, and I wish you much success because I would like to see the work that you are doing and the services that you are providing continue. I know many individuals who have enjoyed and benefited from the programs and I wish you success. I hear all the wonderful things you are doing and how passionate you are about the work that you are doing.”
Many left uneasy about the uncertain future of PCTV, but encouraged by the opportunity to speak.
“I think we were heard,” said Levy. “But I don’t think the mayor and council really understand how critically important we are for the community, not just for Princeton, but for the entire world.”
“There're many things PCTV can do for us, I hope that we can continue to support them to be the thought leader, educational resource as well as spotlighting Princeton as the destination of choice,” said Britton.
Lempert encouraged supporters to fundraise, reiterating that the town of Princeton benefits from the taxpayer relief offered if franchise fees were not given to support the PCTV.
“We’re not trying to kill the station in any way, we value the work that you do, but we’re really imploring you to use all this energy and excitement about the station to fundraise privately,” said Lempert.
In the end, the mayor and council voted to pass a resolution to pay PCTV $56,962.00, which was the cable franchise fees owed to PCTV from Jan. 1, 2019 to March 27, 2019, that the town of Princeton collected from Verizon and Comcast. At the conclusion of the meeting, Lempert indicated that she was not open to re-opening negotiations, however, added that she would discuss it with the rest of the council.
“It’s very important for residents to turn on the TV, watch PCTV, see the quality of the programming and the shows that we have,” said Goldstein. “Fundraising is a supplement for now to the cable franchise fees. In the long run PCTV will depend on fundraising, but there needs to be an adequate transition time to make this happen. If individuals truly appreciate the work of PCTV, they should make a tax deductible donation and help the fundraising account for Princeton TV because the lights cannot afford to go dark in this town on PCTV.”
Some of the organizations that have, and continue to benefit from PCTV, include: Princeton Youth Ballet, Princeton Community Housing, Princeton Blairstown Center, Princeton Pro Musica, and the Trenton School Based Youth Services Program. The station has also done work for countless other organizations, including: League of Women Voters; Affordable Housing; Corner House; Princeton Community Housing; Princeton University (Petey Greene Program);Princeton University Preparatory program helping low income students attend college; (Princeton University Prize in Race Relations; Princeton University Lewis Çenter for the Arts; Princeton University Department of African American Studies; Centurion Ministries; Princeton Public Schools; HiTops; Trenton School District; Elm Court Senior and Low Income Affordable Housing; Princeton Police Department; Nassau Film Festival; Epilepsy Foundation of NJ; Princeton Recreation Department; Princeton Public Library;Princeton Human Services; Send Hunger Packing; Latin American Legal Defense and Education Fund;The Suppers Programs; Autism Services of NJ; Princeton Community Area Foundation; Arc Mercer;Princeton Merchants Association; National Association of Mental Illness Mercer County (NAMI); Environmental NonProfits including Sustainable Princeton and C-Change Conversations; Susan B. Koman Foundation for Cancer Awareness; literacy groups including Room to Read and Grand Pals; Institute for Advanced Studies; Princeton Theological Seminary; Anchor House; Womenspace; Princeton Symphony Orchestra; McCarter Theater; Princeton University Art Museum; The Witherspoon-Jackson Development Corporation (WJDC); Princeton Historical Society; Unbroken Warriors and various veteran organizations.
“My hope is that we work out a way that both parties can truly continue to thrive so that the legacy for future generations when they look back and see what happened in 2019 and 2020 will be one that is a model of compromise," Goldstein said.
For more information about PCTV or to donate, go to www.princetontv.org, or visit the PCTV GoFundMe page, https://www.gofundme.com/f/save-princeton-community-television.