TX: A crisis at public access TV

Posted on May 28, 2007 - 4:56pm.

from: Houston Chronicle

May 24, 2007, 8:44PM
A crisis at public access TV

Half-hour from downtown, turtles float, alligators sun and birds bathe in Armand Bayou.

Houston has the most successful Crime Stoppers in the world, helping solve 1,152 cases last year.

Katrina evacuees find jobs easier if they put local numbers on resumes and delete music from voicemail.

The things you learn on public access TV.

Over the past few weeks, I've watched a lot of Channel 17 so I could be aware of what the Houston community could lose.

Next April, operations funding for Houston MediaSource, the nonprofit that runs the station, will drop from about $617,000 to $100,000. The cut surprised station officials, who are frantically trying to jump-start fundraising efforts.

No more 'PSA Dude'?
"It really kills us," says executive director Fred Fichman. "I mean, if we don't raise money, we're out of business."

It could mean an end to the documentaries, church services, public service call-in shows, the "PSA Dude," who cracks jokes and reads press releases while taking viewers to uniquely Houston places.

It could mean an end to this one island of cable TV that's immune from commercial influence and the effects of media consolidation. The only place where anybody with an idea can borrow a camera, attend free training and broadcast a message to the community. The station's 300 producers are as diverse as the George Bush Presidential Library, the Houston Fire Department and average citizens.

Unlike Internet sites like YouTube, public access, created just after cable in the 1970s, finds you where you live.

'Truth' abounds
The municipal channel, which airs City Council meetings, is also affected, but the city hasn't ruled out helping.

The city blames the funding woes on a new state law. Station advocates say the city could help, but isn't willing. Some say that attitude is fueled by a 2005 controversy in which MediaSource came under fire for nudity and profanity on a few shows. There's truth on all sides.

The city's contract with the cable company, now Comcast, expires next year. Under that contract, the cable provider pays 5 percent of gross revenue to the city, a rental fee for right-of-way for cable lines.

This money can be spent on anything the city wants; many cities use some to help fund public access TV. Houston did, too, until Mayor Bill White ordered it transferred last year to the general fund. The decision, which cut MediaSource's budget by a third, came after the nudity flap. The mayor attributed the cut to fiscal discipline.

The contract also contains a special provision, negotiated by the city, in which cable volunteered to pay for operations. For some reason, federal regulators only allow cable companies to pay operational costs voluntarily. Any mandated fees must be used for capital costs: bricks and mortar, camera equipment and so on.

Enter the new state law, passed quietly during an emergency 2005 session on school finance. The bill was really about helping AT&T and Verizon break into the Texas cable market without having to negotiate with each city. It created a statewide franchise agreement and transferred negotiating power from the cities to the Texas Public Utility Commission.

Since cities can't negotiate cable agreements anymore, they can't cut deals to cover operations. The bill required cable to pay cities 1 percent in gross revenue, but that can only be used for capital costs. What good is a new camera if you can't pay someone to run it?

In cities like Austin, this bill won't be a death sentence for public access. It may be a different story in Houston, unless MediaSource can raise enough private funding.

A no-brainer?
Public access is less of a priority here. The majority of the 63 cable franchises in the greater Houston area use taxpayer money to help fund public access, according to the Comcast spokesman Ray Purser. But Houston doesn't. And our mayor won't consider taking money from the general fund to help MediaSource while it scrambles to raise private funds. To the city, it's either paying for cops' overtime or public access.

That may seem like a no-brainer to some. Many Houstonians couldn't tell you what channel public access is on. Although call-in shows get plenty of takers, there's no way to measure how many people watch because the station can't afford Arbitron ratings. If the majority isn't watching, why care?

"The majority of people don't vote. Do we get rid of democracy?" says Dr. Laura Stein, assistant radio, television, film professor at the University of Texas.

She says public access is a right, a common forum reserved for everyone. The mayor cares about open space and parks elsewhere in our city. Why not on cable?

White could find the money in the city's $3 billion budget if he wanted. He could start by restoring $279,000 cut from the channel's budget last year.

The city's decision sends a message about Houston's commitment to free speech and First Amendment expression. Maybe if Channel 17 disappeared from your TV tomorrow, you wouldn't notice.

Or would you?


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