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Home to gabfests, dance performances and wacky cooking shows, the Minneapolis Television Network (MTN) keeps broadcasting even as local-access TV stations nationwide struggle in the YouTube era.
MTN has survived thanks to hundreds of thousands of dollars annually from the city of Minneapolis, bolstered by a fierce lobbying effort that has dominated recent property tax hearings over a function that comprises less than 0.1 percent of the budget. Under the city budget approved this week, the network will get its lowest subsidy in at least nine years, but its pipeline of money from a fee on cable subscribers ensures it will stay on the air.
Programming doesn't get much more diverse than at MTN. A recent evening of programming on the network's three channels featured a cooking show hosted by men in drag, local activists discussing Social Security and Gaza, a half-hour static shot of the Mississippi River, a Somali singing and dancing celebration and a pro-wrestling themed comedy show.
"This is a very inviting way for people to come in and learn media and connect with their community and connect with the wider city and become relevant," said Michael Fallon, MTN's new executive director.
Others question whether the programming is worth the cost.
"In this day and age, when I watch what's on there, I think there's a fair amount of it that is ... subpar," said council President Barb Johnson, who has also run across some late-night "objectionable" content. "I like to encourage artistic expression, but at what cost?"
Viewers may have been asking themselves that question on Tuesday night, during a skit rerun from the 1990s featuring a wrestler body-slamming the host, burying him beneath a Christmas tree and ripping a Hulk Hogan doll to shreds.
The city payout to MTN this year will be about $463,000, with the possibility of an additional $46,000 next year. That's down from a recent peak of $723,000 in 2010. Mayor R.T. Rybak wanted to make the same cut last year, but the City Council filled in most of it with one-time dollars.
The money comes partly from a $1-per-month fee that Comcast subscribers pay to the city for public, education and government access (PEG) programming. Though the city also has channels for education and broadcasting council meetings, all of the earmarked money has traditionally gone to MTN. The station is also funded by a small portion of the $3.1 million in franchise fees Comcast pays annually to the city's general fund.
A new era
Rybak's spokesman, John Stiles, said that every city function has taken cuts in recent years and that people's TV habits have changed in the past 30 years. "The mayor thinks that MTN needs to look hard at how they provide their service and how they fund their service," he said.
The station, which went on the air in 1984, also offers low-cost media training and a number of programs aimed at getting youth involved. But sensing its new financial reality, the station hired Fallon this year to bring in some know-how in nonprofit management -- MTN is a 501(c)(3) corporation.
"They're trying to encourage us to find new revenue to support what we do, which is what my intention is," Fallon said. His 2013 budget presentation projects more money coming from grants, donations, membership fees, training services and production work. The city allotment would drop from 84 percent of MTN's income to about 68 percent.
"Unfortunately. this is something that we're seeing happen with a fair amount of frequency among our centers," said Sylvia Strobel, executive director of the Alliance for Community Media, which advocates for public-access television. A 2011 study by the Alliance for Communications Democracy said that PEG centers in at least 100 communities have closed since 2005, in part because new state laws have cut the amount flowing into public access from cable providers.
The story isn't the same across the river. The $858,000 that St. Paul's public-access broadcaster, the St. Paul Neighborhood Network, gets through PEG funds makes up less than 50 percent of its revenue. Its outgoing executive director, Mike Wassenaar, said he hasn't faced similar cuts -- partly because the money isn't controlled by politicians.
"Does the city value the expression rights of their citizens? I would suggest to you that given the recent history in Minneapolis, it might not be the case," Wassenaar said.
'A wonderful guy'
Despite his effort to cut the network's budget, the mayor has turned up in MTN studios. Rybak dropped by one of its most popular programs, "Viva and Jerry's Country Music Videos," several years ago to pop bubble wrap, flip coins into a glass bowl, scrutinize a picture of a chicken wearing glasses and blow a bicycle horn.
"He's a wonderful guy," said Viva Beck, who has been hosting the show with husband Jerry for 21 years. "But I suppose there's better places to put the money. I don't know."
She suggested that people involved in programming might pay more in membership fees to help make up the gap -- right now she pays only $40 a year.
"We need MTN," Beck said. "There's fun programs like ours -- we're doing it for a hobby, really. But there are people that want to get a point across. And it's really a shame."
Eric Roper • 612-673-1732 Twitter: @StribRoper