Buncombe County Commission

“I’m optimistic … that the people who are going to get access to [URTV] are not all going to be crazy pornographers bent on misshaping society.”

— Asheville resident Billy Roberts

The simmering controversy over a proposed public-access TV channel erupted once again last week as opponents and supporters squared off at the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners’ Feb. 17 meeting.

Sporting handmade paper buttons depicting a red slash through the letters “PATV,” opponents voiced fears that the proposed channel would turn out to be a showcase for pornography.

But station proponents also marshaled their forces, insisting that the worries about porn are overblown — and that public-access TV could boost local economic-development efforts while giving budding multimedia entrepreneurs much-needed experience and exposure.

Meanwhile, representatives of URTV (the nonprofit under consideration to manage the new channel) have told Xpress that a number of safeguards have been drafted to deter obscene content — and to ensure that any non-obscene content aimed at an adult audience is shown only when young viewers are least likely to see it (see “Sex and the County,” Feb. 11 Xpress).

The Feb. 17 meeting marked the second time this month that the issue has dominated the board’s public-comment session.

Station opponents also turned out in force back on Feb. 3, when the commissioners decided to postpone a vote on whether to launch negotiations with URTV to manage and operate the station. That vote has now been put off until April 6 to give County Attorney Joe Connolly time to research how the Raleigh public-access station handles potentially offensive programming without running afoul of First Amendment protections.

Back in September, the commissioners unanimously approved an interlocal agreement with Asheville allowing a single nonprofit organization to run a joint public-access channel. Advocates have been working since 1999 to establish such a station, which would be partly funded by revenues from the separate cable-franchise agreements that Charter Communications has with both the city and county.

The hot-button issue of public-access TV content provided a lively counterpoint to an otherwise solemn session that focused on the plant closings announced during the past year, which eliminated more than 1,000 Buncombe County jobs, according to the Employment Security Commission — and the efforts traditional economic-development officials are making to try to generate new jobs.

Fear of vibrancy?

In contrast to the Feb. 3 meeting — when only one person spoke in favor of public-access TV — there seemed to be as many supporters as detractors crowding the meeting room during the board’s most recent session.

Without exception, those supporters framed the issue in relation to the Media Arts Project, a new nonprofit seeking to establish a local media-arts center where novice digital-media professionals could get real-world experience. Public-access TV, proponents say, is one key way to display their work — which could range from animation to videos.

Greg Lucas, executive director of the nonprofit Media Arts Project, urged the commissioners to support both public-access TV and the media-arts center as a way to help foster skills workers can use “in the 21st century” rather than continuing to rely on manufacturing.

“We are trying to foster a community here that will help our work force get out of this cyclical and, unfortunately, spiraling-downward economic-development plan that focuses on manufacturing and bringing in companies from outside the area,” Lucas declared. “That is just simply not working anymore.”

Asheville resident Billy Roberts said he views opponents of public-access TV as being afraid of the “risk of vibrancy.”

“As a voice of support for URTV, I want to make it clear I’m not for exposing pornography to our community’s children,” proclaimed Roberts. “I’m optimistic and hopeful that there are good people in Asheville who are interested in putting on quality, informative, really creative programming to enrich our community — and that the people who are going to get access to it are not all going to be crazy pornographers bent on misshaping society.”

Roberts went on to suggest that an advisory council could help encourage and support good programming.

Asheville digital-media entrepreneur David McConville, who chairs the Media Arts Project, also stressed the economic-development aspects of both URTV and the media-arts center. He added that he doesn’t understand why the tiny chance of potential problems should doom the entire project.

“If we have this chorus of voices and one person sings out of tune, to shut down the whole choir seems a little bit extreme,” McConville told the commissioners, adding that the URTV board has tried to address community concerns by promising to adhere to state obscenity laws.

“We really need to come to a compromise on this so that we can understand how we can really use this resource and not just kill it before it’s even on the air,” added McConville, a UNCA grad. “I think that would be a travesty for this developing sector.”

“Real pornographers”

Even though public-access TV resoundingly dominated the public-comment portion of the meeting, viewers of the county’s government channel (which televises Board of Commissioners meetings) might never have suspected it. The county no longer televises the public-comment sessions that precede the board’s meetings — a fact that galled a couple of the very folks who spoke out against public-access TV. One of them was Haw Creek resident Fred English, who also took another turn at blasting the whole idea of public-access TV.

“I don’t want URTV in my household,” he insisted, adding that he thinks most of the channel’s proponents haven’t been in North Carolina more than 10 years, whereas he was born and raised here.

Then, abruptly shifting gears, English asked the board, “Why isn’t this going out on TV?” referring to the ongoing public-comment session. “Why don’t you all have the guts to let the people out here in the county see this, what’s going on here … instead of just hiding it out. You got our voices silenced in this room. That’s as far as it goes.”

The next speaker, Media Arts Project supporter Brian Morrisey, said he agreed with English that their comments ought to be carried on TV — public-access TV.

But another opponent, Mars Hill resident David Swanson, said he’s worried about what his 10-year-old granddaughter (who lives in Buncombe County) might see on public-access TV. Swanson noted that he represented the Foundation for Conservative American Values, a national organization based in Madison County.

Swanson also raised an economic issue, declaring, “If it’s voted in, everybody pays for it,” though he conceded that people could simply choose to cancel their cable service — or switch to satellite TV.

Local fears about content have surfaced only recently; among the more vocal critics have been longtime county-government watchdogs Don Yelton and Chad Nesbitt, who have their own cable-TV show. (The Asheville Tribune interviewed the two for an article in its Feb. 12 issue, headlined “The Untold Dangers of Public Access TV.”)

Nesbitt, who said he represented a group called Citizens for Decency in Broadcasting, noted that he, too, produces programming — only he pays for his productions to run on cable TV.

“The taxpayers will be paying for your personal agenda. And if some of the things that you do is so great, then why aren’t you going ahead and putting them on television and paying for them like I do?” he queried.

(Only taxpayers who are also cable-TV subscribers will be paying for that programming via surcharges on their cable bills, though this wasn’t spelled out at the meeting.)

Nesbitt also told the commissioners about scatological humor he said he’d found on a Web site referenced on the URTV site. “People are able to show anything they want on PATV because of discrimination laws we have under the First Amendment,” he said.

Leicester resident Alan Ditmore, meanwhile, calmly observed that “real pornographers are thoroughly commercial” — hence not likely to be terribly interested in public-access TV.

In an e-mail sent to assorted city and county officials two days later, URTV Interim Board President Beth Lazer wrote: “The URTV board apologizes for referencing objectionable material on its Web site and on the Web site for the Asheville Public Access Channel Commission. Our webmaster inserted material written many years ago that did not originate with URTV and reflected the less-restrictive standards of the national public access association. We were not aware of the specifics of that material until it was called to our attention. Our policies and procedures specifically prohibit material of this sort from being depicted on URTV. In accordance with our policies, once the offensive material was identified, it was immediately removed from distribution.”

And in an earlier interview, Lazer told Xpress that the nonprofit has proposed multiple ways to regulate content — including abiding by North Carolina’s obscenity laws. At the same time, since public-access TV would be considered a public forum — and the station would abide by the First Amendment — Lazer conceded that programming that some people might find objectionable will likely end up on the air.

The end of an era?

Despite all the hoopla over public-access TV, the bulk of the commissioners’ meeting was taken up by a succession of presentations by local industry and economic-development officials.

Perhaps the most poignant presentation came from Human Resources Manager Richard Hurley of Square D, who recounted the company’s 43-year history in Asheville. On Nov. 11, Square D announced that its parent company had decided to close the plant (which makes electrical switches) and move operations to Monterey, Mexico.

“This was a terribly sad day,” Hurley recalled. “It’s simply a result of doing business in the highly competitive global environment. There’s not a lot that can be done.”

He commended his fellow employees — some of whom had worked at the plant since 1961 — for the dignified way they’d accepted the plant’s closing, scheduled for late 2005.

“Folks, that’s the world today,” Hurley told the board wistfully.

The Square D employees — who have donated more than $100,000 annually to the United Way of Asheville and Buncombe County — are retiring, seeking new jobs or going back to school, he reported.

Commissioner David Young asked Hurley what he thought could be done. Among other things, Hurley said the region needs to look to smaller businesses and other kinds of industry (besides manufacturing). He also underscored the importance of community support for education, so that local students are prepared to successfully enter the work force.

Mike Moore, a former employee of the now-defunct Agfa plant in Transylvania County, told the commissioners that he now represents Western Carolina Industries, a nonprofit organization for employers. Moore also spelled out the group’s extensive legislative agenda, which includes: enforcing current foreign-trade agreements; providing affordable options for businesses wanting to offer health insurance to their employees; cutting the corporate tax rate; and revamping the state’s workers’ compensation system.

The latter point irked Commissioner David Gantt, whose law practice specializes in workers’ compensation cases. Although Chairman Nathan Ramsey instructed Clerk to the Board Kathy Hughes to place a resolution of support for WCI’s initiatives on the agenda for the next commissioners’ meeting, Gantt said he wouldn’t be able to support any measure that hurts working people.

Moore replied that he hadn’t meant to send that message. Ramsey then recounted the case of a worker who’d injured himself climbing a chain-link fence (rather than walking through a gate) and wound up with a large settlement.

Following those presentations, the commissioners made two noncontroversial board appointments and adjourned.

With four commissioners planning to attend the National Association of Counties legislative conference in Washington, D.C., Feb. 26-March 2, the board set its next meeting for Tuesday, March 16.

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