February 5, 2020

Mayor Lempert Responds To PCTV’s Jan. 29 Open Letter

To the Editor:

The recent open letter from members of PCTV erroneously implied that the municipality no longer broadcasts its meetings or posts meeting videos online. The reality is that the municipality continues to operate a channel that airs Council, Planning, and Zoning Board meetings. This channel — 29 on the Comcast Cable system and 44 on Verizon FiOS — has always been completely separate from the channel used by Princeton Community Television (PCTV) — Comcast 30 and Verizon FiOS 45. Additionally, the school district operates its own channel that airs its Board meetings — Comcast 24 and Verizon FiOS 46.

PCTV is a local nonprofit. It operates its cable access channel out of Monument Hall where it produces local programming, primarily interview shows. It also provides video production training and resources for interested residents and non-residents.

For many years PCTV received significant funding (around $250,000 annually) via a pass through of cable franchise fees from Comcast and Verizon through the municipality. Although originally intended to support local broadcasting when this funding arrangement began decades ago, state law now supports the use of these fees by municipalities for taxpayer relief. The vast majority of municipalities in New Jersey use their cable franchise fees to augment their budget. Princeton was one of the very few remaining towns in the entire state to fund a local station.

The truth is that many of those who use PCTV’s facilities reside in municipalities that no longer fund their own stations. These users are demanding that franchise fees be diverted from Princeton’s budget while they themselves benefit from tax relief provided by their own towns.

In 2015, the municipality negotiated a new 4-year contract with PCTV with decreased amounts of funding each year. At the time, the understanding was that PCTV would finally use this time to begin meaningful fundraising as had been promised for many years. The annual municipal subsidy to PCTV was $259,129 in 2015; $252,000 in 2016; $242,000 in 2017; and $232,000 in 2018.

For comparison, Sustainable Princeton receives on the order of $30K/annually for providing services and technical support to the municipality, and the Arts Council receives nothing aside from in-kind police and public works support for Communiversity (the value of this is approximately $30K.) Most all of Princeton’s community nonprofits are funded privately, not by money from the municipal budget.

In 2018, the municipality met numerous times with PCTV to establish a new contract. The proposal from the municipality included a generous $60K+ fee-for-service for filming Council, Planning, and Zoning Board meetings as well as funding to help wean PCTV from the municipal/franchise subsidy. However, PCTV decided to reject this offer. The municipality now films its own meetings at a significant cost savings for residents.

The world of broadcasting has changed dramatically with the growth of the internet. Communication has been democratized to an extent no one could have imagined when PCTV first began broadcasting decades ago. Now it is possible to record and broadcast video across the globe with a smart phone. And increasingly, local residents are relying on streaming services instead of cable subscriptions. As a result, the cable franchise fees collected by Princeton are declining and we all need to plan accordingly. In the latest financial materials provided to the municipality during negotiations, PCTV reported net assets of $481,086 to the IRS in 2016. This sizable reserve should no-doubt help fund its transition toward self-reliance.

Liz Lempert