Call it a cultural history lesson at the touch of a button.
Call it an innovative way to get America better connected to public interest topics.
Call it whatever you want, but Verizon Communications executives and their partners from different civil rights organizations call it a necessary step in providing consumers the opportunity to stay tuned in.
It’s called Community Studio, an unprecedented project in providing public interest and civil rights content to a diverse group of on-demand television viewers, using Verizon’s FiOS TV service (a 100-percent-digital alternative to satellite or cable television, available now in several areas of the U.S.). Verizon launched the new pilot program earlier this year after discussions with more than 35 civil rights leaders. A component of the FiOS video-on-demand (VOD) service, Community Studio features a library of public interest and civil rights video programs that consumers can access at their convenience.
Community Studio provides a service that no other company has offered before in this manner, according to B. Keith Fulton, Verizon’s vice president of strategic alliances. “We’re trying to differentiate ourselves in the marketplace, and we want to keep our good corporate values and good corporate citizenship as a part of that movement into the video space,” says Fulton, whose job is to lead the company’s outreach to multicultural, senior and disabled constituencies in the United States. “So we figured out a way to make community-informative programming available through video-on-demand so that it’s no cost to the nonprofit partners, and the consumers get to decide whether or not it’s content they want to see.”
Verizon has long strived for inclusion with its telephone and wireless services and wants to maintain that value, Fulton says, as it expands into the video business. Verizon began offering FiOS TV in Keller, Texas, in September of 2005 and within a few months was providing the service to more than three million homes and buildings. The telecommunications giant plans to double that number by the end of this year.
Slowing the process, however, has been a morass of legal requirements and negotiations. For Verizon to provide Community Studio through FiOS TV, it must comply with local laws to get local franchises to offer the service. The problem, Fulton explains, is a lack of standardization of laws and processes, requiring Verizon to go through more than 30,000 local franchises to take the service nationwide. Currently, the company delivers broadcast and on-demand programming through FiOS TV in parts of California, Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Texas and Virginia.
The hurdles, however, never dampened Verizon’s enthusiasm for the Community Studio project. “We had national leaders telling us they had quality content,” Fulton says. “We go to their conferences. We’ve experienced a lot of their good content, and so we said, ‘Well, you know, we’ve got a new video product.’”
So far, five national organizations have partnered with Verizon in the project: the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the National Hispanic Media Coalition, the American Association of People with Disabilities, the Black Leadership Forum and the U.S. Distance Learning Association. The five organizations provide all content to Verizon, which organizes it into programming for consumers.
Verizon’s FiOS TV also provides public access, education and government (PEG) channels in its markets, as well as more than 180 digital channels that are targeted to various cultures and ethnicities. Community Studio, however, expands upon the educational and learning opportunities by directly giving its partner organizations a voice with which to speak to the world.
“FiOS TV’s amazing capacity enables us to offer a wide variety of programming, including diverse content featuring voices from the public interest community,” says Kathryn C. Brown, Verizon’s senior vice president of public policy development and corporate responsibility. “Our viewers will benefit from additional content choices, and the organizations will gain the opportunity to reach our diverse and growing subscriber base nationwide.”
Fulton notes the rich material already available from Verizon’s partner nonprofits. “One of the interesting things is that many of them already have the content,” he says. “They often host conferences and events, and some of them, for many years actually, have been recording these events. So it’s a matter of taking the recording, digitizing it and then transporting it to our video distribution hub and putting it on our network. Consequently, we’re not actually doing any production—that’s all coming from the partners. It’s a great marriage. We get quality video that we think there’s an audience for, and they get new exposure. It’s a very exciting concept that really hasn’t been done before.”
Civil rights leaders agree.
“Verizon’s Community Studio is a historic first, giving members of the civil and human rights community an opportunity to use new and emerging technologies to enhance the national dialogue,” says Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.
“The Black Leadership Forum believes that Community Studio will provide an objective voice to the voiceless,” adds Joe Leonard, executive director of the Black Leadership Forum.
Community Studio will also impact people with disabilities, according to both Verizon executives and community leaders, by bringing the technology into the homes of more than 50 million Americans who have disabilities, some of whom work from a home office, and many of whom may not frequent the public library or public meetings. Says Andrew J. Imparato, president and CEO of the American Association of People with Disabilities, “With its powerful new fiber network, Verizon can fill a void and create long-awaited opportunities for diverse constituencies, including the disability community, to broadcast relevant information to national audiences,” says Andrew J. Imparato, president and CEO of the American Association of People with Disabilities.
“With its powerful new fiber network, Verizon can fill a void and create long-awaited opportunities for diverse constituencies, including the disability community, to broadcast relevant information to national audiences.”
Classrooms and learning centers across the country can utilize the technology as part of their curriculum as well, says John Flores, president and CEO of the U.S. Distance Learning Association. Flores notes that uses for distance learning include K-12 student curricula, adult classes, senior citizen classes and training for local governments, organizations and businesses. “Verizon’s Community Studio program will enable Americans of all ages, regardless of geography, to enjoy additional education and distance learning opportunities,” he says.
Likewise, Fulton says his company is proud to add to the technology making these opportunities a reality. He emphasizes the expansion in informational access that comes with each technological advance. “For instance, you’ve got most of the country connected now through the Internet, either at home or through school or work. So as these technologies become more the norm in our society and prices go down, people become more aware of their options around bridging the digital divide. I think there’s still some work to do.”
Part of that work, he says, is getting other providers on board with projects similar to Community Studio. “We hope that the project is wildly successful and other people do this as well,” Fulton says. “This is the kind of good work that we won’t mind others copying.” by Josh Pate