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‘Snowbirds’ Present Surprise 11 With Programming Challenge

Channel creates connection to residents

Jacob Abramson, Surprise 11’s senior video production coordinator, is on duty at the broadcast controls during a Surprise, Ariz. City Council meeting. Photos courtesy of Surprise 11

While Surprise, Ariz.’s channel Surprise 11 serves as the face of municipal government, it also has the unique challenge of addressing a cable audience that is not always in town.

“There is a very large seasonal population in Arizona, and Surprise has a pretty large senior population,” Jacob Abramson, the channel’s senior video production coordinator, tells Government Video. “They come during the winter months to escape the snow, and then they leave us during the summer months to escape the heat.” Available to the 26,000 households in the city that subscribe to cable, Surprise 11 is also accessible via Granicus—a company that provides streaming media of public meetings—which enables part-time residents to remain connected with the community when they are out of town. “With Granicus we usually get over 60,000 archive views per year,” he said.

Launched in 2004, Surprise 11 began by televising council, planning and zoning meetings, which it continues to do today. As the station has evolved it has expanded into other city programming and 24-hour playback, with shows such as the newsmagazine “Surprise Progress TV;” “Today in Surprise,” which covers upcoming events and activities; “The Chamber Minute,” a monthly update from Surprise’s Chamber of Commerce; and the “Chamber Speaker Series,” which televises speaking events hosted by, once again, the Chamber of Commerce. “Surprise in Five” features five-minute studio vignettes that cover specific department services—such as recycling, for example—and “Rec TV” is a new show that places Surprise’s Parks and Recreation Department in the limelight.


J. Roberto Grassi oversees a camera immediately prior to a taping of the Surprise 11 show ‘Council Conversation’ hosted by Surprise Vice Mayor John Williams, who is seated.

Abramson says the channel’s most successful programming are shows that keep things brief. “People tend to tune out after five to 10 minutes, so we try to focus in on that five- to 10-minute video length,” he said. To better serve both part-time residents and the city’s younger demographic, the channel is concentrating on its web initiatives, he said. As part of that effort, for every show produced, Twitter and Facebook feeds are sent out, which has “considerably” increased the number of views, he said. “The number of viewers accessing Surprise 11 via the Internet and mobile devices is on the rise,” he said.

With a limited staff—Abramson is the channel’s only full-time employee, and is supported by a parttime staffer—and an annual budget of $170,000, Surprise 11 can easily be described as resourceful, drawing upon as-needed assistance to produce over 250 shows and 150 hours of original content in-house. Whereas it began in an office, the channel is now housed in a proper production facility, and equipment was upgraded in 2007. “We got new field cameras about a year-and-a-half ago, and we are doing all of our field acquisition in HD, but, for the most part, we still produce in standard definition unless we are producing a commercial for one of our upcoming events,” Abramson said. The channel might acquire a new playback server, but that depends on the budget.

“I have an equipment replacement schedule, but in terms of actually getting funding for that, we are in a long line with several other departments.” The construction of a new city hall in 2009 originally called for a second control room in the council chamber that would feed back to master control, a plan Abramson successfully opposed. “What kind of cost savings do we have if, instead of building a second control room, we just ran everything via fiber to our main control room and make everything dual purpose?” he asked. Abramson’s proposal did result in some cost savings, and it also reduced some technical complexities. “We only have to maintain one control room, and then when we upgrade, we are only upgrading one control room as opposed to maintaining the second control room with limited functionality, versus our main control room which gives us full functionality.”

During a taping of the Surprise 11 show ‘On the Road,’ Surprise Police Officer Severin Hall, on left, and show host Paul Ferrante discuss road-construction safety.


Ken Lynch, marketing and communications director for the City of Surprise, believes that local television is the ideal vehicle through which city government can connect with those it serves. “It creates a bond between government and residents that only television can provide,” he said. “When people can see their mayor and council members leading the city, making tough choices, setting a direction for the community in real time, a relationship is forged, and residents make a connection between what happens in City Hall and the quality of life in our city.” This relationship is vital, he adds.

That has been found to be true when communities tend to be overshadowed by their larger neighbors, as in this case with Surprise and nearby Phoenix. “We are part of a metro area where, on television, Phoenix news dominates, so Surprise 11 fills a vital role as the only place on TV where residents can get news about their community,” Lynch said.

While he acknowledges the need for quality community coverage, Lynch’s favorite programming on Surprise 11 are the council meetings. “I have a passion for local government because it is so accessible and can move quickly to address local issues,” he said. “That’s what city councils are all about, live and unscripted. I just love it.”

Carolyn Heinze is a freelance writer/editor.