A pre-pandemic studio discussion at the Portland Media Center on Congress Street. (Courtesy PMC)
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In Portland, local access television historically could be found in two places: Channel 2 and Channel 5.

But that stopped being the case when Charter Communication’s Spectrum cable switched them to Channels 1301 and 1303 in 2018.

“It took us out of the playing field,” Lesley MacVane, development director for the Portland Media Center said.

The problem, in addition to having historically been on those lower channels, was that it was much harder for people surfing channels to discover the local access programming.

The Portland Media Center, at 516 Congress St., is the home of public access television in the city. (Courtesy PMC)

“It created a situation where people were not going to be surfing and come across us as they do with the corporate channels in the lower range,” MacVane said.

Channels 2 and 5 were a sweet spot, she said, since local news programming and national networks are in those lower ranges.

The battle between public access and Spectrum is not unique to Maine, either. In April, Rochester, New York, faced a similar issue, when local access stations traditionally on Channels 12 and 25 were relegated to the 1300s. In spring of 2019 in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, local channels were also shifted to the 1300s.

MacVane said this is something Spectrum is doing to local access stations across the country. “We lost viewers,” she said. “People were confused about what was happening.”

The effort to restore public access was aided by Tony Vigue, a cable contract consultant who ran South Portland’s public access cable channel for several decades. MacVane said Vigue’s diagnosis was Spectrum was “trying to put public access television out of business.”

MacVane said she and others at the media center believe the move was a financial decision by Spectrum, since the lower channels are more valuable.

“They were obligated to give us channels, and they didn’t want to give us channels that put us on equal footing with corporate channels,” she said. “And that’s not fair, we are for the public.”

MacVane said Gov. Janet Mills eventually signed a law requiring Spectrum to put local access programming back on the channels they were on before, and Spectrum appealed to the courts. In March, however, a federal judge denied the appeal.

So, as of July 31, MacVane said local access will be restored to Channels 2 and 5. And while Spectrum has appealed the lower-court decision, the company agreed to restore the channels while the appeal is pending. MacVane said Spectrum will also continue broadcasting public access programming in the 1300s, in case the company’s appeal is successful.

Portland Media Center’s new podcast studio is available to the public. (Courtesy PMC)

Heidi Vandanbrouck, a spokesperson for Spectrum, confirmed the company would be making changes.

“On or around July 31, 2020, Public Access channels on 1301, 1302 and 1303 will be also be carried on Channels 2, 3 and 5 respectively,” she said.

In the meantime, the Portland Media Center, at 516 Congress St., is being rebranded to better let the public know about the services it offers.

In addition to carrying City Council meetings, the center also lets local people create and produce their own programming. It conducts classes on how to create programming, as well as classes on other media, such as how to use iMovie or how to professionally use an iPhone camera.

The center also created a podcast studio, which will be open to the public. MacVane said it’s called the Open-Door Podcast Studio, and will be available affordable to rent.

“We make media available for people who normally aren’t able to access this sort of thing,” she said.

MacVane said another development for the center will be a venture called PMC SoapBox. This is a video link hosted by VL Gateway Technology of Boston, and lets anyone operate a webcam production with high-quality sound, imaging and backgrounds. Essentially, she said, it allows a one-person production without a crew.

She said VL Gateway Technology wanted to reach the Portland area.

“They provided all this great equipment that we couldn’t have been able to afford,” she said. “It’s a great opportunity for our community.”

MacVane said the media center still has its own studio productions coming. For example, former Sen. Bill Cohen, who represented Maine in both the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, was also the secretary of defense under President Bill Clinton, will be doing a Zoom interview to be broadcast on public access.

MacVane noted Cohen doesn’t do many interviews in Maine anymore.

“This is really going to be exciting for people in Maine to hear from him about what’s happening in Washington,” she said.

MacVane said the center has also begun uploading its content to YouTube in an effort to reach more people.