Pulling the plug on Public Access
Although it wasn't officially on last week's City Council agenda, Mayor Phil Hardberger and Co. hosted 50 people who signed up to be heard concerning a plan to pull the plug on public-access educational and government TV programming at year's end. `See "Fade to black," December 15-21, 2005.`
The problem, said Public Utilities Director Ben Gorzell, is that Time-Warner Cable will no longer provide broadcasting equipment for the sundry local talents who use public-access Channel 20 to get their message out to the community, effective January 1, 2006. Also on the chopping block are Channels 19 and 21, educational programming, and the government channel that broadcasts the weekly City Council meetings.
Nobody on City Council wants to see those channels go dark, and members briefly discussed a plan to at least put Channel 21 back on the air as early as next month. The other two channels, unfortunately, could be off the air until arrangements can be made to restore them to the airwaves, possibly by February.
According to a notice published by San Antonio For Public Access on its website, sa4pa.com, Time-Warner's franchise with the City will expire at year's end. Senate Bill 5, signed by Governor Rick Perry in September, allows TWC to shut down its public-access studio, and responsibility for PEG channels will rest on the shoulders of local government.
Time-Warner will be required to provide only the transmission signal, and the City would be responsible for providing at least eight hours of public-access programming per day. The operation of the educational channel would rest with Alamo Community College District and Trinity University, both of which conduct classes on air.
City Council pre-empted the 50 or so broadcast producers and interested parties who signed up to speak during the Citizens to Be Heard portion of last Thursday's regular meeting. Ironically, many of the speakers could not be heard on TV, since Mayor Hardberger has yet to fulfill a campaign promise to put that portion of the council meeting back on the air.
The City was to receive up to 1 percent of the cable company's gross capital, which could have been used to continue broadcasting the channels, but because of TWC's pending lawsuit against a Houston-area entity, the funds - approximately $1.8 million - are in escrow (as a result, the City would have to front the money, with no assurance of being reimbursed).
"The City has no studio," explained Gorzell. "There is an uncertainty about revenue streams."
Gorzell says that even if TWC agreed to provide the cable channels for up to one year if the City paid the $1.8 million, the City would still have no broadcast equipment at the end of that term. "We would be in the same situation; no studio equipment and no funding."
The director said that up to 60 percent of the 183 local public-access producers do not use TWC facilities to produce their shows, and the City could purchase production kits and hire additional staff to aid in getting the public-access channels back on the air, but it may take at least until February to accomplish that feat.
"We think we can make those adjustments," Gorzell said, and pointed out that if the City takes over public programming, the cost would have to come out of the City's general fund.
But Gorzell also reassured everyone that the City "intends to maintain all three channels."
Mayor Hardberger said the City would "just have to build the whole system up from scratch again" and would "have to go to the general fund to pay for it."
Hardberger tried to discourage everyone who had signed up to speak in favor of continuing the three public cable channels, as the hour was getting late. "It is our intent to continue all three; it won't be easy. You've made the point and we agree with you."
But the signers, some of whom had sat in council chambers for hours, were determined to speak, so Hardberger let a few of them have at it during the City Manager's report.
And, as Councilman Roger Flores took the mayor's seat and called out names during Citizens to Be Heard, somebody in the control room turned down the sound, and segued to the government channel's rotating TV commercials, which tout everything from spaying and neutering of pets to reporting a neighbor to the code-compliance department.
On Channel 20, meanwhile, preachers thumped their Bibles, touting their love of a higher power on a chilly Thursday night. •
By Michael Cary