November 25, 2015: Belmont Media Center: Stepping into the Future

November 25, 2015: Belmont Citizen-Herald

The Belmont Media Center has served Belmont well for ten years. However, in an era when people can post YouTube videos to the Web, taken by phones they carry in their pocket, one might well question whether BMC remains a valid future model for public media access. If provided with appropriate resources, BMC can and should remain a critical part of Belmont’s community information network.

Now is a good time to question what the future might hold for BMC. BMC is largely supported by contracts which Belmont negotiates with Comcast and Verizon, the two cable companies serving our town. The Verizon agreement is up for renewal in 2016. The Board of Selectmen’s negotiations with Verizon could profoundly affect BMC’s future role in the community.

One of the key attributes of public access is that it isn’t just about broadcasting, it’s about education as well. MediaShift, a national publication following digital media, explains that while YouTube and Google Video will host your videos, they will not teach you how to do the video programming in the first place. The training a local access center such as BMC provides in media production, MediaShift notes, is something you can’t get by sitting at home alone, uploading videos to YouTube.

Today, BMC teaches primarily how to use broadcast equipment. Tomorrow will involve teaching about computers as well. Through BMC, community residents should be able to gain access to the Internet, and learn to use on-line video and audio equipment. One fundamental objective of public access is to give community members a forum in which to speak. In the 1990s, one media analyst observes, cable TV was the best way to do that; today, it’s only one way of many. A new Verizon contract should provide BMC with adequate computer capacity to teach all types of media access.

If there has been one criticism of public access TV nationally, it’s been that they have become too tethered to their studios. That’s a criticism that is difficult to apply to BMC. Belmont residents routinely watch coverage of meetings from various schools and municipal buildings, in addition to watching a host of local athletic events.

Nonetheless, looking forward, BMC would benefit from an increased capacity to broadcast wirelessly to facilitate remote broadcasts. In contrast to events such as Town Meeting or Selectmen’s meetings, now broadcast from the High School and Town Hall, a future broadcast of community activities such as the children’s reading hour from the Benton Library is now limited by technology, not by BMC programming policy or priorities. The new Verizon contract should provide BMC with adequate wireless technology.

Given the recent explosion in high definition TVs, BMC needs the capacity not only to produce, but also to broadcast, programs using the same technology as viewers use to receive. BMC cannot do that today. An exclusive focus on high definition TV, however, falls into the trap of using a ten-year contract to look only at the “now.” The Verizon contract should not force BMC to constantly play from behind. As people increasingly move to video-on-demand and 3-D broadcasts, for example, BMC should be allowed to update its capacity to stay current with viewer technology. The new Verizon contract should enable BMC to broadcast in the manner that people will be watching tomorrow.

Concededly, particularly in terms of technology, it’s difficult to look ahead ten years. To do its job, however, BMC needs certain essential resources: an expanded education staff, sufficient computer technology, and up-to-date broadcasting technology. The new Verizon contract is the place for Belmont to begin not only to ensure BMC’s “today,” but also to step into BMC’s “tomorrow.”


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