Eight months ago, Islip ventured into public-
access TV - and got off to a bumpy start.
Two town board members spoke sharply against it, arguing that the grants funding the program could be put to better use. The three part-time contractors hired to create "Spotlight Islip" - none of whom had television experience - faced a steep leaning curve. And the show's producer, Jeffrey Bessen, editor of the weekly newspaper Suffolk County News, decided not to renew his six-month contract, which expired in December.
Nevertheless, Islip officials and those who have been featured on the show herald
it as a success, pointing to content that champions the achievements of community members.
The 30-minute program, which is produced monthly and airs at different times six days
a week, is the second small-screen endeavor for Islip Supervisor Phil Nolan. In the 1980s, as a county legislator, he spent a few years hosting live public-
access interview shows featuring local student-athletes and county government officials.
Last year, when he announced plans for "Spotlight Islip," Nolan said his concept was to highlight good news in town: high school musicians, science contest winners and 100th birthday celebrants. Since the first show aired in August, the program's episodes have shown an emphasis on school districts and events hosted by town officials: veterans commemorating D-Day, board members honoring local valedictorians, superintendents leading tours of their schools.
"I think it's a great community service," said Bea Huste-Petersen, founder of the EJ Autism Foundation, who was interviewed in June at the Great South Bay triathlon in East Islip. The event raised funds for her organization.
"Small though [the show] may be, nevertheless people saw it," said Huste-Petersen, who encouraged friends to watch. "I think it will grow with more participation. I'd love to see it in MacArthur Airport."
Funding the venture
Islip Town is paying for "Spotlight Islip" exclusively with public-access grants from Cablevision and Verizon that are designated to be used to improve public access to government. Under a franchise agreement reached in 2007, Cablevision, which owns Newsday, gave a one-time public-
access grant of $95,000, plus ongoing access to the company's production studios. Verizon's contract, signed last year, includes $90,000 per year. The show appears on Cablevision but not on Verizon's FiOS because the Verizon franchise agreement did not include public-access broadcasting.
So far, the town board has approved the expenditure of $25,000 of the grant money for staff. Six-month contracts went to Bessen, for $10,500, and two other part-time
staffers with education
backgrounds, $7,250 each.
The town said it has spent $25,633.75 on equipment, which it began using this month to record town board meetings for broadcast on the same Cablevision channel.
Members of the town's public information office also work on "Spotlight Islip." Bessen, who said he left because the job took too much time away from his responsibilities at Suffolk County News, will not be replaced, Nolan said.
The venture into broadcasting hasn't met with universal acclaim. Islip Councilman Steven Flotteron and Councilwoman Trish Bergin Weichbrodt, a former News12 anchor who was elected last fall, say Islip should spend the money to refurbish the town's auditorium and boardroom - moves that would meet the grants' mandate of improving access to government. Both were elected, with Republican backing, to a Democrat-dominated board.
"TV is an extremely expensive proposition and something that takes a lot of skill and training," Bergin Weichbrodt said.
Citing technical problems on "Spotlight Islip," including shaky camera work, out-of-focus images and awkward editing, she said, "I have seen better production value out of college interns, and they don't have to be paid."
But Nolan, a Democrat, defends his program.
"I think the quality of the video is improving as these guys learn," he said. "I've watched the shows and I enjoy them. I think we've met our goals."
Islip is not the first Long Island town to try its hand at television
Several towns broadcast board meetings, and Southampton runs a public access channel staffed with one part-time and two full-time employees.
"Spotlight Islip" airs on Cablevision's channel 18 on Mondays (6:30 p.m.), Tuesdays (10 a.m., 6:30 p.m.), Wednesdays (10 a.m., 1:30 p.m.), Thursdays
and Fridays (10:30 p.m.) and Saturdays