ROCKPORT, Maine — America needs more locally produced television and less “Law & Order,” according to Rockport entrepreneur Robert Nichols.
While cable stations proliferate, relevant and interesting programming can be hard to find, Nichols said in an interview this week. That’s why his latest idea, PegMedia, uses innovative technology to help distribute and promote community television shows around the state, the country, and even the world.
PegMedia is a Web site and electronic distribution hub for locally produced television programs. The site has revolutionized how local programs find homes — taking programming from the “bicycle age” of distribution into the digital era.
Before PegMedia hit the Internet, a show produced in Maine for one of the public, educational and government, or PEG, television stations had limited viewerships because their DVDs were distributed through the mail, which in the digital age is relatively slow and inefficient.
Nichols, 62, knew of that inefficiency firsthand because after getting involved with Knox County’s Channel 7, he volunteered to distribute DVDs of a Maine-produced program called “Second Acts.”
Nichols, who describes himself as a “serial entrepreneur” with a strong computer background, decided to look into other options. He found that cable-Internet speeds now are sufficient to do electronic distribution of shows, and so about one year ago he set up an electronic server through which the programs can be downloaded over the Internet.
“I ended up with more people who wanted more shows distributed,” Nichols said. “I ended up spending more and more of my time creating DVDs.”
By January of this year, PegMedia went national, and now 650 stations are using it to download programming — all for free.
“What we’ve done is energize the stations, because they have more content, and energize the producers, because they have a much wider audience,” Nichols said. “It’s kind of a magic thing that came together, like Craigslist or Google.”
Hundreds of community access television stations around the country and even some in Europe are using the service.
One of those stations is run by Tony Vigue, who said the programming made electronically available through PegMedia is a great addition to the world of community access television.
“This is a great way to do it,” the South Portland Community Television manager said. “We see a lot of programming from different parts of the state or New England on PegMedia. And when a station produces something locally, the first thing we want to do is share it with others.”
Robert Skogland, also known as “the humble Farmer,” said PegMedia has helped him get his home-produced television hour on the air in places as far away as Oklahoma and Wisconsin.
“Bob Nichols has created an electronic warehouse, where wannabe producers can send in whatever programs they want,” Skogland said. “My show could only be broadcast in Maine before Bob put that up.”
Every week, Skogland said, he would mail DVDs of his show to 30 stations in Maine, but no more.
“He’s really provided a great service,” Skogland said.
Skogland said he had talked with people involved in community television in New Hampshire who told him folks throughout New England had been wanting to do something like this for a long time.
“Bob Nichols got the jump on them,” he said.
This kind of success isn’t new to Nichols, who in 1996 sold his Maryland software company to Symantec, which makes the Norton Anti-Virus program. After the sale, he probably could have retired and relaxed on Florida beaches. In fact, he and his wife did retire to Florida. But in 1997, Nichols came to the first PopTech tech-nology conference in Camden and “fell in love with the area.” They moved here full time a few years ago, and Nichols dived into local politics, getting on the planning board and then the Select Board in Rockport.
At the meetings, he noticed something that surprised him.
“I found that people watched our meetings [on TV]. Not very exciting, but they would watch them,” he said. “The power of local television is a way of getting to people. We’re losing a lot of personal interaction. People don’t come to town meeting anymore. They’re in their cars instead of walking, [or] in their houses, watching TV.”
The PEG stations’ programming had a lot more to do with communities than corporations, Nichols decided, and has been glad to use his skills to help in the nonprofit endeavor.
He emphasized his belief that Maine is not a state that supports entrepreneurs.
“If PegMedia were a for-profit venture, I would have started it in another, more business-friendly state,” he said.
Nonetheless, it seems that many of those who make community access programming for passion rather than profit are pleased at PegMedia’s timing, and so is Nichols.
“This is one of the last bastions of local programming and local people getting involved. We’re trying to preserve that. It’s coming at a time when people are concerned about losing communities. To me, it’s another sort of perfect storm. The time is here and the need is here,” Nichols said. “Maybe the thing that causes the problem can be part of the solution. It’s like karate, when you use the power of your opponent against them.”