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AIM Presses for More Funding in Arlington-Comcast Agreement

County will use testimony in negotiations with cable provider.

Arlington Independent Media enjoyed a strong show of support Tuesday night when residents, artists and a wide range of professionals told story after story about how the nonprofit public access channel benefited the community.

Their stories will be analyzed and used as legal evidence of what Arlington needs in the long process of renewing a franchise agreement with Comcast Cable.

“There are many places in this country where average citizens cannot compete with corporate media,” said Rob Parrish, an Arlington filmmaker and video artist.

“But here… our citizens that make programs are right next to CNN, CBS, Fox and the rest. That is wonderful thing, and it needs to be nurtured, expanded. We need to strengthen AIM so that those kind of voices can be part of the dialogue that strengthens democracy.”

The testimony was heard by Arlington’s Information Technology Advisory Commission in what was the last in a series of attempts to gather public input.

More than 60 people showed up to the County Board Room, many wearing T-shirts in support of AIM.

Several talked about how AIM made their dreams come true, or helped them gain the expertise they needed to further their career or find a job. They made cases for increased financial support of AIM for the sake of giving regular people access to specialized equipment and training and to keep up with the rapidly changing media landscape.

“It is not the time to consider any pull back from programming like AIM has, because the new generation that’s coming is going to be more savvy than those of us that are my age,” said Maida Withers, a local artist and George Washington University professor.

“They are going to create programming we can’t even imagine today. And it’s going to happen tomorrow, not 20 years from now.”

Dylan Blaylock, communications director for the Washington-based Government Accountability Project, said AIM helped him learn how to use the equipment needed to produce a show that started small but today is carried on Free Speech TV and about 70 public access channels across the country.

Who gets what

The franchise agreement gives Comcast access to county right-of-way to bury the cable it uses to provide service to its customers.

In exchange, the company pays a 5 percent state communications sales tax – the bulk of which, about $2 million, goes to the county’s general fund. The rest, about $550,000, makes up about 80 percent of Arlington Independent Media’s budget.

Under the existing agreement, Comcast installed and maintains a fiber optic system that connects to 36 public schools and 54 other government buildings – an institutional network, or INET. INET is used by police, fire, the county’s 911 system and other agencies at no cost to Arlington.

Several hundred thousand dollars more have been diverted to the county’s public, educational and government program through a series of grants and other funds. Arlington Educational Television, or AETV, and the Arlington Virginia Network, or AVN, benefit from these dollars.

The county is well into the heavily regulated, three-year renewal process.

The current agreement expires June 30, 2013.

“If we were to go to the negotiating table without public input… we would get very little,” said Rob Billingsley, the county’s cable administrator. “We, as the negotiating team, can’t just go to Comcast and ask for things without a basis of what the residents want.”

AIM supporters specifically asked for:

  • Additional funding in order to keep up with growth in operations and programming;
  • More space for classes;
  • A grant to buy high-definition equipment;
  • A new, larger studio;
  • More bandwidth in order to stream video online;
  • Access to the county’s INET;
  • Requiring Comcast to list public access information in its channel guide, provide free announcements in its bills, and air AIM advertisements on its satellite networks.

“The renewal of the cable franchise offers an important opportunity for success to be built upon,” said Paul LeValley, AIM’s executive director.

The list did not come with a price tag.

“There’s no dollar figure,” LeValley said. “What we’re asking for is the capacity to keep up with demand.”

Since 1982, AIM has trained more than 8,000 people in basic and advanced media production, and has produced more than 14,000 programs, he said.

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