Local TV stations adapt, see new importance amid pandemic

  • Nick Ring, executive director at Greenfield Community Television in Greenfield, works at his desk. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Production Coordinator Philippe Simon edits a town meeting at one of the editing stations at Greenfield Community Television. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Nick Ring and Philippe Simon, rear, work at the newly spaced out editing stations at Greenfield Community Television on Main Street in Greenfield. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Some of the offerings at Greenfield Community Television are displayed on a chalk board outside the Main Street studio. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Greenfield Community Television on Main Street in Greenfield. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 5/31/2020 8:33:08 AM
Modified: 5/31/2020 8:33:05 AM

Like many essential services, local television stations have, in the past two months, had to rethink how they do their work, and often have had to do it with fewer resources than usual.

In some cases, they’ve also stepped outside their normal functions, lending technical support to government groups that need it, or helping with major community events — like high school graduations — so they can still happen in some capacity.

“We adapted to the initial reality. Now it’s going to take some brainstorming to figure out what our place is, going forward,” said Otis Wheeler, who is the manager of Falls Cable in Shelburne Falls and of Bernardston-Northfield Community Television (BNCTV). “Like the state, we’re kind of at this second period, and re-evaluating where we’re at now.”

Athol-Orange Community Television (AOTV) Executive Director Carol Courville said she and her staff contacted all the government boards they normally cover, and set up new procedures so that TV workers could reliably access and record the online meetings.

“It’s a lot of new coordination,” she said. “Now we’re in a routine. It took a few weeks to get into a routine, but now we’re doing it.”

Public access TV ‘essential’

One of the major reasons why public access TV stations are deemed essential, according to the Massachusetts state government’s website, is their role in covering news. For local stations, most of that comes down to broadcasting government meetings.

In mid-March, as the state government began limiting public gatherings, many town and city governments likewise changed the way they conduct public meetings. TV stations also had to change to keep up.

When a TV station broadcasts a local government meeting live, station managers explained, it is usually using a physical cable plug-in that the cable company has wired to the meeting location — in most cases, a town hall or a school.

But, since March, most government groups have shifted to do business in online video conferences, rather than in person at their normal meeting places.

For the TV stations, this means that their usual way of airing meetings — recording and broadcasting live through a cable plug-in — no longer works. Instead, they have had to make totally new arrangements with town boards.

In the hilltowns, internet access is less ubiquitous than in other places, Wheeler said. When government groups there began seeking ways to work remotely, some relied on Falls Cable workers for technical support, he said.

“That actually took precedence. Without their meetings, we wouldn’t have anything to record,” Wheeler said.

For most meetings, station managers said, they sign into the video conference the same way a board member or a member of the public would. Sometimes they have special access to multiple video feeds, which they can cut between overlay titles and captions.

Greenfield Community Television (GCTV) is still able to live broadcast government meetings, according to Executive Director Nick Ring. The City Council, the Ways and Means Committee and the School Committee are the major priorities, he said.

But in Shelburne Falls, which is less technologically connected, Falls Cable can’t broadcast live on TV anymore, Wheeler said.

“We’re looking into the technical hoops we would have to jump through to make that happen,” he said. “I think, if the towns continue to meet remotely for the next three to six months, then we’ll be able to adopt a solution.”

Internet feeds use different technology, so the station is still able to broadcast meetings live online, on its Facebook page.

Viewership up

Viewership numbers can’t be measured on a TV cable feed, but in some cases online viewership is higher than usual.

Courville said viewership on AOTV’s website has definitely increased in the coronavirus crisis. GCTV has seen a similar trend, Ring said, although the numbers are not extraordinarily high.

“When we get into the double digits of people watching a budget meeting, that’s exciting,” he said.

Another part of what public access TV stations do is to offer resources for locals to create and broadcast their own shows. Some even loan out cameras and other equipment, book out their studio space or help people learn the technical points of video production and editing.

A lot of that has stopped. Both AOTV and GCTV have closed their offices to the public, and have only recently begun to consider reopening them. Yet, some volunteer producers are still making their shows on their own, at home, either with equipment on long-term loan from the stations, or with their own equipment.

AOTV’s Shining Lights now four per week

Some have actually become more active than usual. Shining Lights, a talk show on AOTV, has increased its production from one episode a month to four per week, Courville said.

For GCTV, many of its producers are taking this time as a break, Ring said. Those who normally cover community events now have nothing to do. But some who conceptualize their own shows are still working on them at home, he said.

GCTV recently sent a survey to its producers asking how the station might be able to support them continuing to produce shows, Ring said. As the state starts to open up again, he said, he expects interest in self-producing TV shows to quickly return.

In the meantime, high school graduations have become unusually large projects for local TV stations.

Most years, the TV stations treat high school graduation like any other event that they record and broadcast. But this year, as local high schools are unable to hold their graduation ceremonies as they usually do, several of them have tapped the local TV stations to create virtual experiences.

Greenfield High School’s graduation is being held as a drive-in ceremony at the Franklin County Fairgrounds on Saturday. GCTV is broadcasting the audio on a radio frequency, so that people in their vehicles can tune in. To stream it live as video, GCET, the local internet company, is installing a wireless booster so that it can be broadcast online, Ring said.

AOTV and graduation

Likewise, AOTV is working with Ralph C. Mahar Regional School and Athol High School to coordinate different video events, Courville said. One idea has been a parade of vehicles that can be recorded from a distance, she said.

“They are definitely leaning on us so that people can see it,” she said.

Pioneer Valley Regional School is holding its graduation ceremony at the Northfield Drive-In. BNCTV will record it with multiple cameras, edit it together and project it onto the drive-in screen. Wheeler said it is probably the biggest production the station has ever done.

“While it is unfortunate that we can’t film a traditional graduation,” he said, “we’re excited to do it in this new format.”

Reach Max Marcus at mmarcus@recorder.com or 413-930-4231.

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