During a time when community access television is becoming an increasingly antiquated commodity, those at Millbrae’s local station are looking to change the channel’s vision for the future.
With declining cable subscription rates, which limits exposure to local television viewers, the small staff at Millbrae Community Television, or MCTV, is seeking new ways to remain a valuable community resource.
In an attempt to be known as more than simply the channel which shows City Council meetings or other local government programming, MCTV plans to begin offering classes teaching editing and visual storytelling, to serve those who have interests in learning about television production technique.
But while working out of a small office connected to the Millbrae Civic Center, at 621 Magnolia Ave., with one full-time employee, rebranding the station should be considered no small task.
“We are definitely in a huge transition period,” said Andy Pitman, the station’s general manager. “We want to be less a channel about content and more about training for production.”
Though the station plans to stay on the air showing original programming, such as a Millbrae oral history project told by longtime residents or concerts by local school bands, the effort is also underway to gauge the community’s appetite for other services.
Dana Sahae, the channel’s coordinator of Development and Outreach, said the process can be challenging.
“We are interested in community feedback,” she said. “It is a lot of trial and error.”
The production classes, which are set to begin in January, are the channel’s first crack at offering a service other than purely broadcasting programs.
And though there is a nominal fee of roughly $30 per person to take the classes, Pitman said the education sessions are not designed to make money for the station, but rather ramp up community engagement.
“The courses are not a moneymaker,” he said. “We are just looking for any way to get people involved.”
MCTV receives about $80,000 per year in combined contributions from the city’s general fund, as well as grant money, which is spent to pay a portion of the operating expenses from the station’s new headquarters in the Chetcuti Community Room’s conference room, near City Hall.
Pitman said about 60 percent of the station’s revenue is generated through outsourcing broadcasting and production services to other nearby cities such as San Mateo and South San Francisco.
During a previous round of funding negotiations with the Millbrae City Council, officials had requested the station move toward becoming more self-sufficient.
Pitman said the station’s new work space should go a long way toward broadening its accessibility to the community, and perhaps building more revenue streams.
Though the station, which has been operating for nearly two decades, is looking to modernize its service, Sahae said there is still an obligation to stay true to its roots.
“The goal is to tell community stories,” she said. “And since we are based in Millbrae, we want to tell Millbrae’s community stories.”
There are roughly 5,000 households in Millbrae who have access to the station on television, said Pitman, but the amount of viewers who watch the channel online or stream it over YouTube are constantly rising.
He said the station is proud of offering a service which is increasingly rare, as more and more community access channels fall by the wayside.
“We are pretty unique,” Pitman said.
The station needs to hire a staff of roughly 12 contractors should the channel wish to broadcast remote live events such as a Mills High School basketball or football game, which are traditionally popular among the station’s audience, said Pitman.
The new office though does feature a humble production studio, with space for about three participants and a director, which is where the channel hosts interviews for programming such as its Millbrae Magazine program profiling local residents.
Due to its limited resources and ability to hire professional talent, Pitman said MCTV frequently tries to work with local students who may be interested in television production internships.
He said Mills High School and San Francisco State University students have been a tremendous resource for young, ambitious talent looking to grow their skills using the station’s technology.
One of the local high school students helped the student develop a Mandarin broadcast for the station’s programming, which aims to serve the city’s substantial Chinese population, said Pitman.
Sahae agreed drawing from the local community has been integral in growing the station’s capabilities and vision.
“We have a lot of amazing talent right here in Millbrae,” said Sahae.
As MCTV has grown from effectively being run out of a remote production trailer in its formative years, to a basement near the police station and now in its new space, Sahae noted how the channel has expanded its services.
“It’s just a tremendous amount of growth,” she said.
But Pitman noted the station still faces a substantial threat, as the landscape of community-based broadcasting is constantly evolving, especially as the Internet’s influence becomes increasingly pervasive.
“It can be a little overwhelming,” he said. “It’s not easy.”
Sahae expressed enthusiasm for the future of MCTV though, as the station looks to enter a new era through offering a different set of services to local residents.
“It’s new and exciting,” she said.
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Note to readers: this story has been changed to reflect 5,000 households have access to the television channel.