By Al Diamon
Created Jan 7 2008 - 1:57pm
If you've visited the Sugarloaf ski resort in Carrabassett Valley, you may have seen WSKI-TV on the local cable system. Channel 17 carries programming promoting outdoor recreation in general and Sugarloaf in particular, although except for a somewhat-amateurish morning show (aired four days a week during ski season, increasing to seven days for holiday and vacation weeks), the local programming consists mostly of electronic bulletin boards listing events. This low-budget operation is supplemented by shows from the Resort Sports Network (RSN).
There's also advertising. Lots of it. Carrabassett's restaurants and real estate agencies are among the big buyers of the channel's relatively inexpensive time. And that's a problem.
According to the town's franchise agreement with Time Warner Cable, Channel 17 is to be operated for the "exclusive non-commercial public, educational and governmental access use" of the municipality or its designee. But since WSKI began, it's been strictly a commercial operation. Now, after a complaint by a town resident, that inconsistency has become the subject of public scrutiny and debate.
WSKI was created by the Sugarloaf marketing department in 1979 to promote the mountain's activities. It was originally distributed on the ski area's own TV system, but when cable television arrived in the area, it shifted to that format as Channel 17. In 1986, Sugarloaf's bankruptcy led to WSKI being sold to Jeff Dumais, currently president of RSN, and Nadine McLeod, the station's supervisor. They continued to operate WSKI through several changes in cable system ownership. According to McLeod, while she and Dumais were out of the country in the early 1990s, the town signed a new franchise agreement with Adelphia Cable that designated Channel 17 as a non-commercial access channel.
"Adelphia gave us that label because they didn't know where else to put us," said McLeod. "We are in fact a commercial station."
According to a statement issued by Carrabassett Selectman Lloyd Cuttler, Adelphia used that designation" for their convenience," even though the cable company knew the channel was selling advertising. "WSKI was never viewed as a [public access] channel," Cuttler said.
Except that's what the franchise agreement said, and when Adelphia's assets were obtained by Time Warner Cable in 2006, the same contract remained in effect.
For a long time, nobody complained about this situation, either because they were unaware of it or because it was in their financial interest to allow WSKI to use the non-commercial channel. After all, the town and the ski area were getting a lot of free publicity, while local businesses - including a restaurant owned by Cuttler - got low-cost advertising aimed at their target audience.
Then, along came Boss Hogg.
Boss Hogg is the public persona of Scott Hogg, former owner of radio stations on Mount Desert Island, who sometimes volunteered at WSKI as host of the haphazard morning show and produced an on-mountain interview program called "Boss Hogg, Snow Reporter."
In December 2006, Hogg approached Dumais about buying WSKI. According to Hogg, Dumais was willing to sell his share, but McLeod was not, so the negotiations never went anywhere. "This was before I knew what it is," Hogg said. "I thought it was a commercial broadcast operation. I didn't get any indication it wasn't. Knowing what it is, there's nothing to sell."
Shortly after the sales discussion ended, Hogg said, he was informed by McLeod that his volunteer services "were no longer needed."
McLeod called Hogg's story "a complete and total fabrication." She said he was never banned from WSKI, either due to his failed effort to buy the channel or, as he also asserts, because he produced programs critical of Sugarloaf's then-owner, American Skiing Co.
What is certain is that Hogg filed a complaint with the town, claiming Carrabassett Valley's public access channel was being illegally occupied by a commercial enterprise. He also produced an 11-page document, detailing his side of the story and accusing WSKI's owners of "fraud." After some prodding by Hogg, the town hired Portland attorney Patrick Scully to examine the legal issues.
In a Dec. 6 letter to Town Manager David Cota, Scully concluded that it was up to Time Warner to enforce the terms of the franchise agreement forbidding commercial programming on Channel 17. Neither Hogg nor the town could do that, even though Carrabassett Valley was a party to that contract. Scully also said nothing in the franchise agreement granted Hogg or any other citizen the right to broadcast on WSKI, even if it was a public access channel. It was up to the town, he said, to decide if it wanted to open up Channel 17 as a "public forum." Finally, Scully said that if WSKI wanted to continue operating as it had in the past, it would either have to lease another channel from Time Warner, or the town would have to agree to amend the franchise agreement to allow some commercial programming.
According to Tony Vigue, manager of South Portland Community Television and a board member of the Community Television Association of Maine, allowing advertising on a public access channel isn't unprecedented. "Federal regulations don't say you can't have commercials on a [public access] channel," Vigue said. "They just say it's not a typical venue … In New York City, the government access channel has ads, and the city collects the revenue to offset the cost of the programming."
Carrabassett Valley selectmen recently voted to form a "Cable TV Public Access Channel Committee" to investigate whether the town should have a public access channel, how it should be used and what it would cost. The committee is supposed to issue a report by Feb. 8, so the matter can be considered at the annual town meeting in March, but to date, few members of the public have expressed an interest in serving. It seems unlikely the town will resolve its part of the issue in the near future.
Meanwhile, Time Warner and WSKI have opened discussions about leasing a channel. According to McLeod, the cable company wants $16,000 a year to continue carrying the station, which she says exceeds WSKI's annual profit of "less than $10,000 a year."
How much is McLeod willing to offer?
"We are the biggest draw the cable company has [because] you can't get WSKI on a [satellite] dish," she said. "We've always thought they should be paying us."
Stay tuned. If you can.
- Filed 1/7/08
Al Diamon lives in Carrabassett Valley. He can be e-mailed at email@example.com.