Channel surfers in the west metro may be due for a surprise at the end of the year. Many who watch local high school football or basketball games, parades, graduations, election debates and even school board and city council meetings on local access television may be out of luck.

The Lake Minnetonka Communications Commission, which produces those shows and others for nearly 12,000 cable subscribers in 17 member communities, is facing the largest changes in its 30-year history.

Nine member cities have announced plans to withdraw from the commission when its 15-year contract with cable provider Mediacom expires at the end of the year. That has raised concerns that the commission will scale back its services, which help establish community identity and train ordinary citizens to produce local programs.

Commission Executive Director Sally Koeneke said the four-person staff considers themselves public servants and relies on dozens of volunteers to produce nearly 800 programs a year. “The whole purpose of community television is to show the community what’s going on with their youth, with their nonprofit organizations, with their government,” she said. “To the extent that we can, we’ll still try to provide that.”

Slashed budget

That may be challenging. Because of the potential withdrawals, Koeneke said the commission’s 2013 operating budget of nearly $700,000 has been cut to $400,000 in 2014, contingent on approval by member cities.

Under the current arrangement, all cable subscribers in the 17 cities pay a franchise fee on their bills each month, and the money goes directly to the commission for its Spring Park studio, four-person staff, and programs that run on four channels. Subscribers also pay a smaller secondary fee. The commission is directed by a board with two commissioners appointed from each community.

Because of the expected reductions, it’s unclear how staff and programming will change, Koeneke said. Adding to the uncertainty is that some of the nine communities may change their minds by the end of the year and remain with the commission. Or they may negotiate their own individual franchise agreements with Mediacom, withdraw from the commission as 2014 begins, produce some of their own programs, and perhaps purchase some of the commission’s programs.

Those offerings include staff-produced monthly or quarterly programs about public safety, local legislators, Three Rivers Park District and local mayors or city administrators. They also include school events and city celebrations taped by a mobile production van, government meetings and election coverage, and public access shows by independent producers. The commission also partners with nonprofits on some programs, and offers classes in camera operation, editing and studio production.

Litany of concerns

What caused so many cities to consider dropping out differs from community to community. Some cities are interested in controlling franchise fees instead of turning them over to the commission. The amounts range from less than $10,000 to more than $80,000 per year, depending on the city.

Other communities are unhappy that the commission has not been more aggressive in pushing Mediacom to extend cable services into more rural areas that have been requesting cable for years.

Changing technology is playing a role, too. The commission is streaming some government meetings on the Internet as a public service, or taping them for access from city websites, even though cable subscribers and not the general public are paying the costs.

The nine communities that may withdraw are Minnetrista, Tonka Bay, Victoria, Loretto, Orono, St. Bonifacius, Greenwood, Maple Plain and Medina. Some have said they are definitely done at the end of the year and are negotiating their own franchise agreements with Mediacom. Three cities said they gave notice to withdraw as a preliminary measure, but are likely to rescind their decisions if the commission changes some of its rules and negotiates a better group contract with Mediacom.

Mediacom Communications Director Phyllis Peters said the company has deals with communities individually or as groups, and sometimes as counties in its broad service area throughout the Upper Midwest.

“The decision to negotiate as an individual or as part of a consortium of communities is entirely up to each community,” Peters said. “Mediacom has no preference nor do we have any say in the matter.”

Impatient customers

Liz Weir, mayor of Medina, said the snag for her city was that the commission wasn’t pushing Mediacom hard enough to build its system out to less densely populated areas of the community.

“We felt there was no hope under LMCC for building out,” Weir said. “We’re confident that we can get it done much more quickly by direct franchising with Mediacom.”

Medina already negotiated an agreement with Mediacom, effective next year. As part of the process, the company signaled its intention to provide a build-out map and begin construction this fall. That did not happen, Weir said, and because it was a “verbal agreement” the city did not contest it.

Weir said she feels confident that when the official contract becomes effective in January, Mediacom will follow through on its promises to build out its system quickly.

St. Bonifacius Mayor Rick Weible said his city sent a notice of withdrawal because it wants to preserve its legal right to drop out if certain questions are not answered. Among other things, Weible is concerned about getting locked into a 10-year contract with Mediacom when technology is changing so quickly. If cable companies such as Mediacom turn themselves into Internet companies, he said, they will no longer be regulated in the same way and everything could change, including franchise fees.

“I’ve asked for a one-year extension with the current contract so we can continue to work through this,” Weible said.

What may emerge, he said, is some kind of hybrid model where cities provide some franchise fees to the commission for services, but also keep some of the fees for their own access-related projects.

Enforcing the rules

Weible said one of the advantages of being in the commission is that its contract with Mediacom has “teeth” and spells out not just what the company agrees to provide in services, but also the legal consequences if it fails.

Some new contracts with individual cities don’t have enough enforcement provisions, Weible said. “That means the ability to control channels, the ability to fine the cable provider, and the ability to have an attorney go after them,” he said.

Independent producer Jeff Strate of Eden Prairie has yet another concern: that cities breaking away from the Lake Minnetonka Communications Commission or similar organizations will choose only to pay for broadcasting their own city council meetings, but not to support a common studio with a much richer diversity of local programming in arts, education and public affairs.

“I’m always trying to beat the drum for public access television,” he said. “It’s an asset that no single city out there can afford on their own.”