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Thursday, November 16, 2017 02:25 PM

Milwaukee's MATA Community Media faces historic funding challenge


(Since this article was published, MATA has closed.)  For 33 years, an amazing blend of audiences has been served by Milwaukee's MATA Community Media.  Turn on channel 14 or 96 and a Milwaukee sports enthusiast can watch "Sports R Us," a member of the gay community can see "The Queer Program," budding entertainers can be encouraged by "Pleaze Take Da Stage," African-American kids can see themselves on "Asque the Blaquesmith," Special Olympics athletes can revel in their finest moments on the baseball diamond by watching  Northsuburban vs. New Berlin, and those who want to see something a little out of the ordinary can watch "Brain Box."  Religious communities, too, have flocked to MATA.  "We have a huge audience for religious programming, which in recent years has grown to 60% of our programming.  I think we have a program for every religious denomination active in Milwaukee," said Executive Director Vel Wiley.

And then there are the shows that are relevant to a broad cross-section of the City:  a Rotary Club speaker explaining the Sikh faith in the aftermath of the 2012 temple shooting, a League of Women Voters panel discussing infrastructure investment, a Community Brainstorming session inspiring action on sex trafficking, a series of programs on redeveloping the historic Brewers Hill area. 

But after 33 years, the city may soon have to do without this non-profit 501c3 organization.  MATA's primary source of income, a dedicated fee on cable subscriber bills called a PEG fee, was outlawed by Wisconsin's Cable Competition Act (2007 Act 42). MATA was fortunate to have a kind of reprieve from the law for many years because the City negotiated with Time Warner to have the PEG fee paid as a lump sum at the start of the 15-year franchise in 2000. But that franchise cannot be negotiated again with Charter Spectrum, the new cable operator, because local franchising was also outlawed in 2007.  The only way MATA can survive is if the City of Milwaukee decides to fund the public access center out of its budget.

MATA has been a witness to and participant in the history of the city.  During the high-profile Jeffrey Dahmer murder trial, MATA was the only television station to get the main courtroom video feed - Justice Shirley Abrahamson wanted to be sure the coverage was unfiltered. During the Iraq War, MATA partnered with Time Warner to send videograms to soldiers. It documented years of Martin Luther King Day Celebrations and featured the restoration of the historic art deco Ambassador Hotel.  Many of the shows have very little in common with each other, but they do share one thing:  they were all made possible by MATA Community Media.

"I am proud of our Board of Directors," said Vel Wiley, Executive Director, who has steered the organization for the last 26 years.  "We worked hard to keep our doors open.  Over the years we developed several streams of income and trimmed expenses, but we were unable to change a business model that was based on receiving most of our income from cable television viewers."

Now MATA itself may become part of the history of the City of Milwaukee.  "Community members are calling and wondering what is going to happen.  Viewers care.  How do you measure the benefit to viewers?  We can say nearly 15,000 producers have been trained in television production over the years, but how many more people have appeared on shows and watched to see people like themselves on TV?" Today, MATA's programs get 20,000 views each month on its VOD site, but, Wiley says, "how do we measure the impact that one special show had on a special child who saw herself reflected positively in a TV show?  It isn't just who you serve, but who is benefitting from it as a whole that you have to consider."