DC agency spending millions on high-def TV facilities

Agency is also partnering with startup to get a cut of revenues on commercial productions.

Washington DC is infamous for its cash-strapped government, with cutbacks, long lines and bureaucratic nightmares commonplace. So, it's raising some eyebrows that the D.C. Office of Cable Television and Telecommunications is spending $6.5 million for something few other government TV channels have: a state-of-the-art high-definition TV production facilities, The Washington Post reports..

Since 2001, however, the agency has found itself with an embarrassment of riches. That year, it received $5 million in compensation when the District's cable provider was bought by Comcast. The next year, it received millions more in overdue franchise fees. The agency collects up to $5 million annually from a 5 percent fee on each cable bill.

The agency has spent $2.3 million to build a studio and $1.2 million for a satellite production truck, both with no-bid contracts. The satellite truck was bought without approval of the council, which is required for expenditures of more than $1 million. The agency then spent $487,000 on equipment to receive the satellite signal. That link has been used for only a handful of mayoral speeches.

All this to broadcast government meetings and mayoral speeches? What to do with the money?

The agency has sent film crews to Europe, South Africa and China with the mayor. It has sent one of its officials to Harvard University for a two-week course in public administration each year from 2003 to 2005, at a cost of $30,000.

Cable Executive Director James D. Brown Jr. said in announcing the upgrade to high-definition that the agency is required by the Federal Communications Commission to shift all broadcasts to digital by 2009.

Not true - the order applies to broadcast television, not cable, and that it requires digital, but not high-definition, according to the FCC.

What do other city TV agencies think of these expenditures?

"What comes to mind, it's flash and glitter," said Baltimore's Marilyn Harris-Davis. "Personally, I don't think I'd pay for it."

"The cost would be huge without a measurable improvement in picture quality. . . . Our capital planning/budget office would probably shoot me," said Boston director Michael J. Lynch, adding that his production studio is "about 25 years old."

The city is hoping to make commercial programs with its new studio in cooperation with Mason Media, a start-up production company. Under that agreement, Mason Media will create programs in the city studio, and the agency will get a cut of profits, estimated at $10 million over five years.

Montgomery County cable director Jane Lawton said she had never heard of a government channel seeking to make a profit. "They're definitely leading-edge I'd say," she added. "A lot more leading-edge than we'll ever be."

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