Planned TV deal raises concern

Public access advocates seek dedicated funding

Producers want independence

City's cable franchise deal would last for 12 years

September 13, 2004|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

The shows airing on Baltimore's public access cable television are unlikely to ever win an Emmy, but the fight to finance the no-budget outlet for citizens' programs is becoming a drama fit for a network hit.

The plot pits dozens of amateur producers on shoestring budgets against City Hall, which controls how money is spent for public access television.

Advocates for public access shows, which air on city cable's Channel 5, are worried that Mayor Martin O'Malley's administration will approve the pending 12-year franchise with cable-provider Comcast without demanding a guaranteed funding source for basic public access needs: a studio, training classes, and video and editing equipment.

City officials counter by promising that the franchise, which will be debated at public hearings before the City Council this month or next, will generate more than $5 million in its first year and that some of the money will be earmarked to establish a public access operation independent of City Hall. Once the franchise is signed, city officials say they intend to designate a nonprofit group that would assist independent public access TV productions. It is unclear how much money from the franchise deal would be put into the effort.

"They should understand that this is as good a deal as they're going to get," Councilman Robert W. Curran said, referring to public access advocates. Curran will be chairman of the hearing.

Public access proponents are not so sure the city's plan will be particularly beneficial to aspiring TV producers.

"If you're going to have this electronic green space, you need to fund it; otherwise you're setting it up for failure," said Bunnie Riedel, executive director of the Alliance for Community Media in Washington.

Public access television in Baltimore has a spotty track record. In 1984, the city's cable provider funded public access with $1.1 million as part of the 20-year franchise that Comcast took over, which expires this year. A nonprofit group operating out of Coppin State University administered the program, but the money dried up three years ago.

Since then, the mayor's Office of Cable and Communications has been responsible for broadcasting publicly produced tapes, a role that even city officials say curtails the political soapbox mission of public access.

"It's got to be intimidating to come down here" with tapes that criticize O'Malley, said Marilyn Harris-Davis, director of the mayor's cable office.

Amateur producers deliver their VHS tapes to the downtown cable office, where they are then aired on Channel 5 at any time of the day according to a first-come, first-broadcast policy meant to avoid accusations of censorship.

Public access advocates, with limited resources, complain that they have to resort to lower-cost, grainy VHS quality while the government's cable access programs are digitally produced by Harris-Davis' office, which has a budget of nearly $800,000 from a previous settlement with Comcast regarding billing overcharges.

Government programs

The government-produced programs appear on a regular schedule with clear sound and pictures on cable's Channel 21, the government access channel. Shows produced by the city public school system appear on cable's Channel 7, the education access channel.

One recent public access show on Channel 5 aired with no sound.

Monthly staples of public access include Music Sampler, a music video program starring Baltimore musicians; Sports Wrap, a sports talk show; and The Woods, a program by local gadfly Leonard J. Kerpelman that features images of the woods near his Northwest Baltimore home.

Harris-Davis said once the franchise deal is finalized, the city will be able to pick a nonprofit group to manage public access and find a separate studio space, perhaps at a public library or local university, to avoid the appearance of government interference.

Public access advocates from Baltimore Grassroots Media worry that any nonprofit chosen would be beholden to the mayor's office. They contend that the city should look to Montgomery County, which has more than 200,000 cable subscribers, to learn how best to support a public access operation.

Montgomery Community Television gets a $2 million budget exclusively for its two public access cable television channels, said Richard Turner, executive director of MCT. It is partially financed by Comcast's franchise fee, a subscriber fee and other revenues, he said. The channel's 25-member staff provides training to the public and manages free equipment rentals to annual dues-paying members. The majority of the nonprofit group's 26-member board of directors is elected by dues-paying residents.

Funds allocation

Amanda Bowers, a Baltimore Grassroots Media spokeswoman, said the pending franchise does not explicitly allocate money for public access. Instead, any money would go to the city, which would then dole it out to the public, education and government access operations.

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