Screens Fade to black 

City Council has delayed its decision about public-access TV, leaving the channel in limbo

A giant talking pig. A woman who speaks through creepy puppets. A lounge crooner with a James Taylor fixation.

Until the arrival of the internet, public-access television was the most democratic of media, providing a soapbox for soliloquists, a forum for the fringe. Yet, at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Day, Channels 19-21, which air educational, public-access, and government programming, will likely show nothing but a black screen. Last September, as part of a complicated and controversial telecommunications bill, Texas lawmakers passed legislation allowing cable providers such as Time-Warner to ditch their production of these channels as of January 1. The law requires Time-Warner to transmit programming and offer channel space for these shows, but without a studio or equipment, public-access programmers—belly dancers and tarot readers, political activists and environmentalists, comedians and heavy-metal hosts—can’t convey their message on local television.

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“For a city of this size, there should be more,” says Jacob Flores, who with Abra Schnur creates Modsnap TV, a public-access show that airs Saturdays from 11-11:30 p.m. on Channel 20. “People are scared to view new things.” If public-access TV is discontinued, the duo plan to continue producing short films on their website, modsnap.com. “We started to get a fan base here,” says Schnur. “On the web, somehow we need to keep up our TV base.” (Photo by Lisa Sorg)

On December 15, City Council was scheduled to consider whether to fill the gap left by Time-Warner and fund production facilities for public-access programmers. However, the topic isn’t on the agenda, and according to the City Manager’s office, Council won’t take it up until after the first of the year, thus letting the channels lapse.

While the pervasiveness of the internet makes public-access TV seem as obsolete as the Betamax, it could be argued that in the age of media consolidation—of which Time-Warner, the largest media company in the world, is a prime example—the existence of such channels is essential for democracy.

“You’re saying the values and opinions and creative process of the public has no value,” says DeAnne Cuellar of the San Antonio-based Texas Media Empowerment Project.

It is odd that City officials, who have known since last spring that Time-Warner could bow out of producing the three channels, waited until November 30 to address the fate of public-access TV. As bills simmered in the legislature in May, Assistant City Attorney Keith Martin told the Current that the loss of these channels is “about free speech.”

According to the City’s PowerPoint presentation, the City has several options, including temporarily or permanently discontinuing the channels. It also could outsource show production or negotiate a transition agreement with Time-Warner to use the existing studio to air pre-recorded shows or to offer the same or scaled-back programming. However, Jon Gary Herrera, Time-Warner’s vice president of governmental and public affairs, says the cable company hasn’t decided what to do with the facility. “We are out of the public-access business,” he says, adding that eight Time-Warner producers will lose their jobs as a result.

City officials have also floated the Orwellian notion of providing only the government channel, which televises City Council meetings and City-sponsored programs. For Fiscal Year 2006, the cost of temporarily outsourcing production of the government channel, purchasing equipment, and hiring three part-time staff is estimated at $324,000.

The estimated cost of airing pre-produced programs, buying equipment, and hiring one full-time staff member for the public-access channel is nearly $90,000.

There is no concrete plan for the education channel.

Operating costs would come from the 2006 budget for capital upgrades.

Since 1985, public-access TV has aired Free Thought Forum, an atheist show that counterbalances the preponderance of Christian programming on Channel 20. Hugh Henry, the show’s 60-year-old host, says there is a dearth of community programming on local network affiliates. “After the weather and ambulance chasing, how much content is syndicated on the news?”

San Antonio is unique in that a cable provider produced its public-access programs; in Austin and Dallas, non-profits fill that role, and in Bloomington, Indiana, the public library assumes the responsibility. Anthony Riddle, executive director of the Alliance for Community Media, says the non-profit arrangement is preferable over handing the reins to city government. “There is a firewall so the City can’t control political speech on the channel. And it shields the city from liability in case of libel.”

In 2003, former FCC Chairman Michael Powell used the ubiquity of the internet as a justification for supporting rules that would allow further media consolidation. Yet, Saskia Fischer of the national Media Empowerment Project notes that low-income families are more likely to have a television than a computer.

“The internet is not a viable alternative for me,” agrees public-access host Nick Calzonit, adding that older programmers aren’t comfortable with webcasting. “That’s not exciting to me.”

Michael Verdi runs studio Node:101 and recently taught a free video-blogging class `see “Picture this,” November 10-16, 2005`. “Broadcast TV, not just public access, is 20th-century technology,” says Verdi, 38. “Will vlogging provide another avenue of expression? Definitely.”

For less than $1,000—still steep for low-income programmers—budding webcasters can buy a laptop and a camera and use the skills they learned in public-access studios to create vlogs. The internet’s infinite reach, 24/7 availability, and interactivity with the viewer, Verdi says, is an advantage over public-access TV. “The other thing is you don’t need permission to do this. You can own the means of production and distribution yourself.”

Patsy Robles is the adult mentor to several youths who write and host The 411 Show, a current-events and entertainment program `see “The lowdown,” June 24-30, 2004`. She says developing the show has taught youth about current events, media literacy, and production skills. “The schools can’t do it,” she says. “Here we at least had the chance to produce something.”

Absent a public-access station, Robles, who attended the vlogging class, says she would consider webcasting The 411 Show. “The internet is an avenue to take, but we won’t give up without a fight.”

To read the City’s presentation about the channels, go to sacurrent.com. A website, sa4pa.com, has been established as a forum for public-access programmers and citizens to discuss the pending loss of the channels.

By Lisa Sorg


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