Agency Spending $6.5 Million on Upgrades
Some Equipment Bought With No-Bid Contracts or Lacked City Council Approval

By Dan Keating
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 17, 2006

In a city where most departments complain that they can't make ends meet, one little agency is enjoying a hefty windfall and making a string of costly purchases.

The D.C. Office of Cable Television and Telecommunications has begun to spend $6.5 million for something unheard of at other government channels across the country: upgrading its production facility to produce high-definition television TV shows.

High-definition delivers the sharper color and clarity usually in demand for sports or panoramic nature shows on a big-screen television -- a far cry from the agency's humble mission of broadcasting staid D.C. Council hearings and mayoral news conferences.

Since 2001, however, the agency has found itself with an embarrassment of riches. That year, it received $5 million in compensation when the District's cable provider was bought by Comcast. The next year, it received millions more in overdue franchise fees. The agency collects up to $5 million annually from a 5 percent fee on each cable bill.

Since then, the agency has spent $2.3 million to build a studio and $1.2 million for a satellite production truck, both with no-bid contracts. The satellite truck was bought without approval of the council, which is required for expenditures of more than $1 million. The agency then spent $487,000 on equipment to receive the satellite signal. That link has been used for only a handful of mayoral speeches.

The agency has sent film crews to Europe, South Africa and China with the mayor. It has sent one of its officials to Harvard University for a two-week course in public administration each year from 2003 to 2005, at a cost of $30,000.

Cable Executive Director James D. Brown Jr. said in announcing the upgrade to high-definition that the agency is required by the Federal Communications Commission to shift all broadcasts to digital by 2009. But FCC spokeswoman Rebecca Fisher said the order applies to broadcast television, not cable, and that it requires digital, but not high-definition.

The notion of high-definition triggered laughter from directors of government channels elsewhere, who said they could not envision a similar move.

"What comes to mind, it's flash and glitter," said Baltimore's Marilyn Harris-Davis. "Personally, I don't think I'd pay for it."

"The cost would be huge without a measurable improvement in picture quality. . . . Our capital planning/budget office would probably shoot me," said Boston director Michael J. Lynch, adding that his production studio is "about 25 years old."

Brown said the $5.5 million high-definition upgrade will enable the District to compete with private production studios nationwide to make commercial programs. To make that happen, Brown said, he is creating a joint venture with Mason Media, a start-up production company.

Under that agreement, Mason Media will create programs in the city studio, and the agency will get a cut of profits, estimated at $10 million over five years.

In August, the agency gave Mason a no-bid $996,000 consulting contract for one year to manage the upgrade and run the studio, with options for four one-year extensions.

Todd Mason, president of the firm, gets an executive office in the cable agency's leased headquarters in the Intelsat Building off Connecticut Avenue.

Brown declined requests for an interview but said in a statement that he was "very enthusiastic about its broad economic potential" for the city.

Montgomery County cable director Jane Lawton said she had never heard of a government channel seeking to make a profit.

"They're definitely leading-edge I'd say," she added. "A lot more leading-edge than we'll ever be."

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