PATERSON, NJ – City officials say they believe changes in the operation of the municipal television studio stemming from Cablevision’s recent layoffs may constitute a breach of the company’s franchise agreement with Paterson.
City Business Administrator Charles Thomas said the municipal law department will review the contract to see if it’s being violated and the city will take Cablevision to court if it is.
Paterson residents who produce local access cable shows at 77 Ellison Street said Cablevision has imposed new scheduling requirements for use of the facility after it laid off the part-time employee who staffed the studio. They said that has resulted in cancelations.
“I have to be in the studio tomorrow, but I can’t get in the studio tomorrow,’’ Quydaar Lewis, one of the local programmers, told the City Council during a special discussion of the situation at Tuesday night’s workshop meeting.
Folks now must call 15 days in advance to reserve the studio. In the past, they could schedule their work with much shorter notice, asserted the local programmers.
Councilman William McKoy said the ready accessibility of the studio was a key reason why Paterson’s local access programming has been so successful. “If we lose this, we’re losing a tremendous asset for the community,’’ McKoy said.
Councilman Rigio Rodriguez called the situation a “smack in the face” to the City of Paterson, especially consider how many Patersonians are Cablevision customers. “You mean to tell me you can’t afford to pay for one employee for the city that’s the third largest city in the state of New Jersey?’’ Rodriguez said.
But Cablevision spokeswoman Kelly McAndrew said there was no change in the operation of the studio and she said the company was adhering to its deal with Paterson.
"Cablevision continues to fully comply with all aspects of its franchise agreement with the City of Paterson,’’ McAndrew said. “The Public Access Studio of Paterson continues to be open and available for use consistent with the past operations. Any local public access producer can schedule a time to utilize the studio by submitting a studio access application to the Access Supervisor, who maintains a master schedule to avoid double booking."
When asked about community members assertions that they have had to cancel studio time in the week since the layoff took effect, McAndrew said, "The Public Access Studio in Paterson was closed on Wednesday, February 13, to accommodate a company meeting. As a result, two previously scheduled sessions (a studio session and an editing session) for that day were canceled. No other scheduled studio sessions have been impacted."
McAndrew also said the 15-day notice requirement has always been in place.
But city community members said their arrangement with Cablevision’s former employee at the studio had been far more flexible than that.
Cablevision has declined to say how many people it laid off last week besides the one employee in Paterson, Michael Taylor. Paterson’s municipal access coordinator John Ming told the city council the number of Cablevision employees who lost their jobs was about 200. Ming said he was concerned that the new arrangement, under which Cablevision representatives come to Paterson only when appointments are scheduled, would undermine the training that Taylor had provided city residents who were just starting out in producing their own cable shows.
Some of the people who produce their own local Paterson shows warned the council not to trust Cablevision’s assurances that services will remain the same. “They’re doing a sleight of hand,’’ said Jermain Stewart. “I’m hoping this council does not fall for it.’’
As part of the agreement between the city and the company, Cablevision provides Paterson with about $360,000 per year in franchise fees. That money is used to pay the lease on the studio on Ellison Street, officials said.
Councilman Kenneth Morris said the city should seek a short-term solution in addition to researching whether the franchise agreement is being violated. Morris said the city ought to relocate its Neighborhood Assistance Director Nancy Grier and have her work at space at the studio. That would allow her to keep the doors open for local programmers during weekday working hours. Grier also has experience with the broadcast equipment because she tapes the City Council meetings at City Hall, he pointed out.
Thomas said he would confer with Grier’s boss, Community Development Director Lanisha Makle, on whether Morris’ suggestion was doable. If not, Thomas said, the city would try to find some other office that could be transferred to the studio to help provide access to the broadcast equipment, he said.