We are not TV

The recent headlines announcing the impending demise of URTV come as no surprise. The stories accompanying those headlines, however, claim the station (now an arm of the WNC Community Media Center, which manages public-access television for Asheville and Buncombe County) is failing because it lacks sufficient funding. I beg to differ.

Unfortunately, URTV failed long ago. And money had nothing to do with it.

I was around — and was a vocal advocate of public-access — when the city of Asheville and Buncombe County were negotiating cable contracts with Charter Communications, starting in the late 1990s. I don't remember it as a particularly easy sell, this peculiar animal called public access. Some officials and administrators seemed leery of creating a television channel open to people of any and all persuasions — creating an electronic soapbox, as it was called. How on earth would they maintain control of the message if "the people" were free to say what they thought and have it shot to the entire community via cable? Then there were the members of the public who feared that this "free speech" merely guaranteed that all manner of vile material, including outright pornography, would enter their homes through that insidious black wire.

It's interesting, now, to take a look backward. Today the state of North Carolina, thanks to our legislators, controls cable-franchise contracts and the money they generate. Back then, individual municipalities and county governments went toe-to-toe with the cable company and had the opportunity to argue on behalf of their particular community's wants and needs.

For example, the small public-access station I worked for in Middlebury, Vt., negotiated for live-programming cable in all the major gathering places around town, so that folks who couldn't attend big or important events might still see them in real time. That was important to us as a community.

Asheville and Buncombe County did what I would call merely a fair job of negotiating their respective contracts on behalf of this community. Like too many government representatives, their negotiators seemed to think we were entitled to very little — a position I'm certain was encouraged by the cable provider.

Nonetheless, a reasonable stipend was agreed upon for operations, along with an up-front payment to cover capital costs. That money could have carried the fledgling URTV far, but something went awry.

It isn't easy to determine whom and what to blame. The controversies over executive directors, board members, bylaws and operational transparency that have plagued the station have done nothing to endear it to the greater community. But for me, the bigger problem is that the station itself — or its incorporated, nonprofit management — has done far too little to win that support.

For a public-access channel to be successful, it needs to be truly owned by its community. Residents must look to the station as an important source of information and entertainment; when watching the local public-access channel, the community needs to see and identify with itself — and then respond by supporting the undertaking.

Support means, first and foremost, believing in the ideal that public access was intended to facilitate: First Amendment television, a place where everyone has an equal opportunity to express their creativity or their viewpoint. I have never had a sense that the larger community here feels any ownership in URTV, nor that it feels the station's programming reflects the community we share.

Frequently, support also means becoming personally involved with the station and its programming: doing your own show. Or taking the training and then helping your church, your nonprofit, your gardening club produce a video to share with your neighbors. It has saddened me to see how little cognizance of both the opportunity and the availability has been developed here in the wake of URTV's creation.

Of course, support can also mean financial backing for the community's station — which seems to be what URTV is asking for at this point, but not necessarily what's deserved.

A spirited, inclusive public-access station can operate on very little money. The annual expenditures URTV is reporting (about $250,000 now, with a future target of $300,000 or more) hints at something grander than such a facility necessarily needs to be. Plush is nice; gritty can sometimes get a better job done.

My personal example: MCTV existed in the attic of the local library, where we created a functioning studio in an auxiliary meeting space and then scheduled around each other's needs. (That's called cooperation.) We set up editing decks in an unused space about as big as a walk-in closet. And we maintained a bank of moderately priced video cameras and editing equipment that some 200 producers (in a town of 7,000, not 79,000) kept busy on a first-come, first-served basis. We spent around $30,000 a year; our rent was zero.

People and officials in that town respected the station and its value to the greater community. They identified with the local beekeeper's documentary; with the video of elderly farmers and their beautiful mountain farms; the archives of the annual music festival on the town green; the late-night comedy show produced by a brilliant high-school team; the latest local dance recital (I can still see those cavorting bunnies in my head); the serious political discussions; the series of tribal powwows around the Northeast. In short, these folks considered MCTV "their" station.

That's precisely the kind of participation and ownership that URTV never seems to have tapped, or generated, here. Which is why, if the station goes away, I really doubt that many people — other than a few veteran producers — will care. And that is the real loss: the failure to create true community television.

Asheville resident Nelda Holder is a former URTV board member and the former executive director of MCTV in Middlebury, Vt.

SHARE

18 thoughts on “We are not TV

  1. public access tv is a special kind of magic that may happen,if you are lucky,and if it has fertile ground in which to grow,and if you let it…
    it is not about money…
    it is about people working together on something that they all love..
    if you have that they will make it work,with,or without money..
    only a very few have the vision to see this,and nelda,you are one..

  2. Media Watcher

    Informative commentary from Ms. Holder. Is it possible that with Internet/Web media so prevalent now, with everyone his or her own journalist-blogger-commentator-video producer, that the need for something as “old journalism” as public access t.v. is no longer needed?

  3. JWTJr

    Perhaps the Newspaper industry and local access are headed to the same place?

  4. Nelda Holder

    Yes, good point, Media Watcher. But my own opinion of the Internet/Web media “experience” is that it is not really communal in the fuller sense. And the distinction is augmented by the viewer’s propensity to look for/at only those things in their specific comfort spheres. So the video experience is available, but I think the separation of the experience does not build community.

  5. @ Mediawatcher
    Television is still the most powerful media form. Public Access is meant to be tv about about local community. YouTube is not about local. The international YouTube community could care less about CTS, local struggles to maintain the public’s ownership of a small strip of land and a magnolia tree in front of City Hall, or the Trailblazers treck through our area forest. Public access television is about local community, produced by local folks without restrictions as to points of view or personalities. At least that was/is the ideal.

    Many folks are still not computer savvy, many still have dial up, or slow DSl so streaming video is not possible. Those that do have a fast dsl, still experience delays and buffering.
    And like this publication (which Mediawatcher is responding to, and which offers in depth coverage of local issues) the locally centered programming is usually of no interest to people outside our area. But is very relevant to folks in our area, and a television channel is still the most effective and powerful way to reach people.

    Still this can be done with a lot less money than seems to be needed by the present private non profit outfit running our public access station.

    Ms. Holders past experience of running a public access tv channel on the cheap is very appealing….and is really in keeping with public access is all about. Up start, gritty and a far cry from slick commercialism.

  6. Media Watcher

    Comments from both Ms. Holder and Ms. Dial very valid. Not sure that local public access t.v. is any more “communal” than local bloggers (with comments) or other “digital media” outlets. People do watch t.v. in the privacy of their homes, just as they “watch” or “read” their computers. It’s a person sitting in front of a screen, either way. A point not raised is the viewership of URTV. Who’s watching? How many are watching? I’m not sure what Ms. Holder means by “viewer’s propensity to look for/at only those things in their specific comfort spheres.” Does this apply to public access t.v. or Web media or both? Someone must actively go to the public access channel and find the program they want to see. Not likely to just stumble upon it while “browsing” or “surfing,” or they? There’s also the question/issue of “production values.” We’re a very sophisticated viewing audience now. If public access t.v. looks amateurish or static, will people who are not specifically looking for a point of view, stay with it? Seems like preaching to the choir.
    Not opposed to it all all. Just question if it needs/requires any kind of public funding, even from the “tax” on cable subscribers. In fact, puzzled by the entire matter.

  7. Lasereye

    The WNC Community Media Center is driven by the citizens who come forth from the community to produce programming they think may be of interest to the community. Like anything in life there are detractors but the station has come a long way since its inception. Today the Media Center, due to its dedicated staff, is a smooth operation which offers production training so independent citizen video producers can tell their stories.
    It does require more effort than to sit on the sidelines and complain. But it takes a motivated citizen who gets-it in the community to step up and produce a TV program. They have made a personal commitment of time, energy and personal resources to stand up – to be heard and be seen – for what they believe is near and dear to their hearts. As a community we need to have feedback from each other to create community dialogue which speaks to diversified local interest. If a citizen producer hits a vein which resonates the community will step forward to support it – if not it goes away. Freedom of expression is the life blood of community. For if we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in freedom of expression at all.
    The WNC Community Media Center is about enabling community dialogue. It would be terrible loss to the City of Asheville and Buncombe County if the citizens were not able to speak and be heard among their fellow citizens. Spread the good news about your WNC Community Media Center. Let others know where they can come forth to exercise their freedom of speech inside of community.

  8. People seem to forget that the WNC Media Center also provides access to state-of-the-art (as of four years ago) video production equipment, including digital cameras and lighting and sound equipment. This is available in the studio as well as field gear.

    The facilities also sport editing bays that give producers the ability to convert Mini-DVs and other analog media into digital files. Producers may also use the latest versions of editing software, not to mention a large studio, complete with blue screen (to provide virtual backdrops), professional cameras and dollies, and a fully functioning control room (just like are used for newscasts on broadcast stations).

    For those of us learning the craft of video production, the cost of that equipment, space, and software would be prohibitive.

    WNC Media Center has also provided educational experiences for local youth. In an increasingly media-driven world, this can only benefit our struggling economy.

    Consider this: once the studio is shuddered, who do you suppose gets to keep all of the equipment? Charter Cable. Who paid for it? Every Charter subscriber. After they sell it all off, will your cable bill go down? Not likely, but if it does, it’ll be less than $0.50 a month.

    Ms. Holder is absolutely correct. Public Access stations all across the nation provide comparable equipment, space, and software to their communities. Most of them get about what URTV gets from the fees collected by the cable company.

    The difference? Most public access stations spend a lot of time fundraising, asking for money from community members who respect, value, and trust the organization running the station. They also spend time applying for grants. PBS, NPR, and Pacifica Radio, just to name a few better known institutions, do the same thing and have been on the air for well over 50 years.

    URTV was engineered to fail. A six-year budget from 2006 showed the organization running out of money in 2010 but the executive director and the board has steadfastly refused to consider devoting much time or effort toward raising funds to keep it going.

    Those of us who called attention to the impending doom–as early as the summer of 2006 (merely weeks after it went on the air) were run off, cast as troublemakers.

    It’s a crying shame.

  9. JWTJr

    “well you just work your Internet/Web media all you like.. i want my public access tv..thank you very much..”

    That was another disappointing theme at the County meeting. All the members getting up and saying how much URTV benefited them. It was all about them.

    That’s a lot of money per member to get their ‘satisfaction’.

  10. Nelda Holder

    M.W. — My opinion is that a good public access facility encourages common ground in at least two ways. When different people from different areas (physical/intellectual, etc.) of the larger community are training together and helping each other on productions or just encouraging each other in building skills, that creates one type of community. It’s hard to get that sitting at home blogging. The second prominent kind of community building is indeed possible when flipping through channels on your cable TV. When people see things they recognize from their own community, they are inclined to stop and check out that program/channel. And when more and more people generate more and more community coverage, then community members are more likely to watch and depend on the public access channel to be “theirs.”

  11. This most recent brouhaha began when the present ED said; “We have fixed expenses: We have rent, we have insurance — all things we’re required to do,” she explains. “We have taxes, we have salaries. From day one we’ve done a bare-bones budget. When I got here, they weren’t going to make it to 2010. Even though the city’s renewed our contract, I know that money won’t last, so I can’t [make financial commitments for] a year.”….
    “The producers are probably going to be at the next meeting; they’re going to be a little upset,” she predicts, adding later that if the community wants to see URTV survive, they need to “scream and yell to their representatives — that’s the only thing that can be done right now.”

    Asked if the Media Center is seeking private funds, Garlinghouse replied: “Where would you suggest? There aren’t any. Public access has to be subsidized. We need $20,000 a month. Do you even imagine that’s possible? I don’t think so.”
    See “Broke” for full story: http://www.mountainx.com/news/2007/060910broke/

    Yet my research shows comparable sized stations getting by on much less….key in “community television” or “public access” at foundationcenter.org to view 990s from various community tv stations. It’s also interesting to compare salaries and facility overhead of other stations to URTV’s.

    No discussions as per reducing spending occurred since my close observations of the Board meetings began, back in July ’08. To me it would seem prudent to at the very least openly address expenditures, given the state of the declining economy. We held a retreat in Feb. ’09…nothing about this frantic impending doom was discussed. Instead we got 7 or 8 hours of B.S. that had nothing to do with future planning. It’s as if folks conducting the retreat were whistling by the graveyard.

    JWT…you are right there was a bunch of people there, who had been fired up the night before by folks at URTV..instructing them to go to the County Meeting and raise hell…..that this was their only chance, as the Commissioners would not be meeting again till mid August.

    At that Commissioners meeting there were also a few of us who said, lets make do with what ever come our way…let’s make it work. We have the community, the talent, the desire and the where-with-all to have a public access channel that produces programming we can be proud of. Let’s pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and get it done. I still insist this is possible…. I said then and I’ll say it again, we have the assets of the channel, and the equipment. If the present management cannot function on the allotted funds, move over and let another entity do it.

  12. Media Watcher

    I agree with Ms. Holder: “When different people from different areas (physical/intellectual, etc.) of the larger community are training together and helping each other on productions or just encouraging each other in building skills, that creates one type of community.” You’ve just described Asheville Community Theatre. Couldn’t agree more that Asheville community television (public access t.v.), like Asheville Community Theatre, or other groups who come together to create expressive projects, are good for community building. I think there’s a community band as well. There was a project recently in which homeless people (I believe) got together to express their points of view through a theatre production.
    Could anyone provide figures on viewership? What demographic is watching public access t.v.? How many are watching? Asheville’s public radio can tell us, I believe, their fund-raising results and their listener demographics. Can Asheville’s public television please do the same? Have they held on-air fund drives the way public radio does?

  13. Someone may correct me if I’m mistaken but, at one point, it was decided that there was no way to assess how many people were watching URTV.

    Whether or not Charter Cable could provide that for us, there are many ways to collect demographic information, even without Neilsen’s help.

    Shows that have viewers who call in could track how many calls they receive. The station could do giveaways (items/services donated by local businesses) to the umpteenth caller in the next so many minutes (remember your favorite Top 40 station as a kid?).

    Those are just a couple of ideas. Information collected could be extrapolated to give a sense of overall viewers.

    Of course, this all takes time and effort. Time and effort by a development director, perhaps? Every other 501(c)3 with a budget as large as the Media Center’s employs someone to do fundraising and nothing else. The fruits of their labor more than makes up for the salary they receive.

  14. Someone may correct me if I’m mistaken but, at one point, it was decided that there was no way to assess how many people were watching URTV.

    Whether or not Charter Cable could provide that for us, there are many ways to collect demographic information, even without Neilsen’s help.

    Shows that have viewers who call in could track how many calls they receive. The station could do giveaways (items/services donated by local businesses) to the umpteenth caller in the next so many minutes (remember your favorite Top 40 station as a kid?).

    Those are just a couple of ideas. Information collected could be extrapolated to give a sense of overall viewers.

    Of course, this all takes time and effort. Time and effort by a development director, perhaps? Every other 501(c)3 with a budget as large as the Media Center’s employs someone to do fundraising and nothing else. The fruits of their labor more than makes up for the salary they receive.

  15. M.W.
    pat garlinghouse,and her staff say that they can give no figures on viewership…
    pat garlinghouse,and her staff have held no on-air fund drives that i know of..
    JWTJr
    if you saw me speak at the County meeting,you must know that i did not talk about how much URTV benefited me..
    it was not all about me..
    i think the people you are talking about were the ones sent there by pat garlinghouse..
    check the video from both meetings..
    Lasereye
    ” Like anything in life there are detractors but the station has come a long way since its inception.”
    yes,but in this case the detractors are people like board members who have been run off,contributors who have been run off,and producers who have given sooo much to urtv just to be run off…all by pat garlinghouse,and her staff..
    anyone can see how far down hill urtv has gone in the past 3 years..
    “It does require more effort than to sit on the sidelines and complain.”
    yes,and i will sit on the sidelines no longer..
    ” If a citizen producer hits a vein which resonates the community will step forward to support it – if not it goes away. ”
    as you must know,i produced 5 hours or more a week of programing,only to be shut down..
    i think i hit a nerve..
    “Let others know where they can come forth to exercise their freedom of speech inside of community.”
    oh,please let me know when you find it,so i can do my show…
    oh how i want to come forth to exercise my freedom of speech inside of community..
    oh Lasereye do go thither,now get..

  16. well i like this one..
    ” according to the records. “Brady became suspicious after she asked Villarreal several times for a more detailed accounting of the bank accounts and he failed to provide one.”

    “Villarreal was hired in December 1993 as the center’s fiscal officer and was promoted to executive director in 1999. ”

    “Villarreal, who served as its interim executive director and fiscal officer, replaces Pat Garlinghouse, who was executive director for three years before leaving in September to take charge of Houston’s Access Cable Corp.”

    ” John Villarreal, 51, is wanted for aggregated theft, a first-degree felony punishable by five years to life in prison.”
    well i guess that is what happens when push comes to shove..
    people get suspicious when they ask several times for a more detailed accounting ,and do not get it..

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.