Apparently, cable-TV technology still flabbergasts Asheville City Council members. On March 2, they had no less than three cable-related topics to wrangle with, and even the seemingly noncontroversial ones brought a few surprises and a touch of techno-babble that had Council members’ eyes glazing over:
• Creating a commission to oversee the city’s new education channel, which is one of three public channels the city negotiated in its new franchise agreement with Intermedia;
• Improving programming on Channel 20, Council’s government-access channel; and
• Debating the video-technology aspects of renovations to Council’s historic chambers — to allow both live and taped broadcasts of Council meetings — and discussing how to pay for the changes.
Council also had to consider one more twist in the plot: Charter Cable (which has operated in Buncombe County, outside of Asheville) is in the process of buying InterMedia (which runs the cable system in Asheville).
The education-channel commission
Council member Earl Cobb explained that a task force charged with plotting the makeup of the city’s new education-channel commission has recommended that Council create an 11-member body. It would consist of representatives from the city schools (two), local colleges (two each for UNCA and A-B Tech), the Buncombe County schools (two), plus other organizations and members of the public who are interested in educational issues (three at-large representatives from local private or charter schools, home-schoolers, MAHEC, the Health Adventure and the like).
“This looks great,” said Council member Chuck Cloninger, in response to the recommendation. And Council members seemed ready to approve it, raising only a few questions about what kind of programs would be likely to appear on the channel.
Workshops for parents, staff-development programs and various events (such as sports and concerts), Asheville City Schools representative Carolyn Moore replied.
Teleconferencing programs, “good lectures” and the like, added Alan Hantz, professor of media law at UNCA. Programming on the education channel could mirror the Open University in London, England, a video-broadcast correspondence college. Participants in that program can actually earn degrees, noted Hantz.
“But we won’t be the Learning Channel for at least three years,” he joked, observing that the commission’s first job would be setting simple technological standards, such as whether VHS tapes would be accepted for airing on the channel. Hantz also noted that neither UNCA nor A-B Tech is outfitted to broadcast programs from their facilities (the city’s franchise agreement with InterMedia doesn’t include the colleges in the city’s “institutional” network, with its two-way transmission capability.).
But, shortly after Hantz’s remarks, public-access-channel advocates tossed a curve ball into the discussion: “We’re concerned with how the money will be divided among the three channels,” said Citizens for Media Literacy Director Wally Bowen. The government channel is already up and running, and the education channel appears to be coming together — but little progress seems to be occurring with the public-access channel, Bowen pointed out. Under the agreement with InterMedia, a portion of cable-subscriber fees will be turned over to the city, which could be used to purchase equipment and cover programming costs for the three channels, known collectively as PEG.
City Manager Jim Westbrook responded that all PEG funds would be directed toward the public-access channel. To date, the education channel has been funded through sponsorships and donations, an arrangement that will probably be continued, he said.
Another city resident recommended that the city work closely with Buncombe County and other municipalities in Buncombe to create joint facilities and commissions, since it’s likely that the entire county will soon be served by one cable provider, Charter.
By the third-quarter of this year, the changeover to Charter will be under way, InterMedia General Manager Joe Haight interjected, throwing in a few technical details about two-way systems and the difference, in megahertz, in capacities between the InterMedia and Charter cable systems. Haight also urged Council to keep the discussion about the public-access channel separate from that of the education channel. “We’re here to talk about the E-channel,” he said.
Dodging the technical points, several Council members noted that — while the city will be setting up separate commissions for the public-access and education channels — the facilities, equipment and other resources for all three channels will probably be shared and coordinated countywide.
Council indicated that they will probably approve the creation of the education-channel commission at their March 9 formal session.
Channel 20 reruns
Asheville’s government channel may be popular, but Council members say they don’t want to bore everyone with 30 reruns of government meetings, broadcast throughout the week. “We want to spare the public,” said Chuck Cloninger, suggesting that the channel include a variety of government-related programs.
Council meetings, the Open/net program produced by the state, a community bulletin board, and information about the city’s pedestrian plan now air on the channel, reported Community and Public Information Coordinator Robin Westbrook. Could other programs be added? “It all comes back to equipment,” she said, noting that the city doesn’t have much, at the moment — no cameras, no studio, no film crew.
But the city did recently hire a cable-access coordinator, Jeff Reble, said Westbrook, taking the opportunity to introduce him to Council members.
Vice Mayor Hay suggested finding a way to better display each meeting’s agenda as it’s being broadcast. Hays said that when he’s tuned in to the show he’s had trouble telling what items had already been covered and what was still to come. Hay suggested displaying the agenda on an overhead projector, so a camera could focus on it at regular intervals, the way sports programs display the score every few minutes. Or maybe, at various points during the meetings, the mayor should identify which agenda items remain to be covered, he added.
“Robin [Westbrook] can do that. She can be our Vanna White,” joked Council member Tommy Sellers.
But it’s not that simple. City Manager Westbrook mentioned that the overhead-projector method has been tried before, but that it blinded people at the podium, plus it wasn’t clear on TV screens.
Robin Westbrook said that staff would work on the problem.
Mayor Sitnick added that she’d like to consider broadcasting other government meetings, such as those of the Planning and Zoning Commission and the Board of Adjustment.
Council member O.T. Tomes remarked that he’s curious to see what he looks like on Channel 20, adding dryly, “People say they’ve seen me before, maybe on television. I’m going to force myself to watch.”
Chamber retake and remake
After Council renovates its City Hall chambers, how hard could it be to broadcast meetings live and tape them to be rerun later in the week?
It all comes down to money and three-quarter-inch videotape, said Reble.
Currently, Council meetings are taped by a private company on three-quarter-inch videotape (the same kind we put in our VCRs). That systems works fine, but it’s sorely obsolete, reported Reble. In the city’s current renovation proposal (which will cost about $400,000), the format is left to City Council to decide: Be state-of-the-art and record using a digital format — which InterMedia isn’t yet equipped to use — or spend an additional $20,000 to purchase obsolete three-quarter-inch video decks, so re-record the meetings in a format InterMedia can use.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Council member Barbara Field confessed, after Reble finished his digital vs. three-quarter-inch explanation. “We’ve got to be able to do more than live broadcasts, so the public can [view the meetings]. How hard can that be?”
And how expensive should the renovations be? “I’m wondering more and more if the cost is worth the benefit,” Cloninger remarked. The overall renovations include a new Council dais, monitors (for displaying maps and charts to people sitting in the chamber); video equipment for live broadcasts; improved lighting and sound systems; and computerized monitors for staff and Council members.
The cost is $100,000 more than it might otherwise be, because the city’s Historic Resources Commission has declared the existing dais to be “historical,” which means it cannot be drilled, cut or otherwise modified in order to install the computer and other electrical equipment, Field mentioned.
“Isn’t that silly?” Cloninger complained. The current dais and furniture work fine, but because of the renovations, the furniture may end up stored on the top floors of City Hall, he said. “This cost is getting out of hand. … We need to have a prayer meeting with HRC,” Cloninger suggested.
But working with HRC to cut some costs wouldn’t solve the three-quarter-inch technological dilemma. Cloninger pointed out that, because Council may want to tape and rebroadcast its meetings, revamping the Chamber with a system allowing one live broadcast per week doesn’t make sense. “It seems like we’re regressing,” he concluded.
City Manager Jim Westbrook responded that the entire video-equipment portion of the renovations will cost only $80,000 and will be recouped over time by having staff do the taping, instead of paying a private company $35,000 a year to tape meetings, as the city does now.
Council then returned to Cloninger’s complaint about HRC’s requirements (which include expensive ways of routing the new wiring, to avoid damaging walls and ceilings). Field remarked, “I’d hate to kill this project over a desk.”
“I’d rather spend [the $100,000 difference] on cushions for all the chamber [seats],” Mayor Sitnick added. She suggested having an HRC representative speak with Council as soon as possible.
But a contract bid with a construction firm for the first phase of the renovations is pending and won’t remain valid for long, Contract Administrator Lyle Willis pointed out. So Council directed staff to ask the company to extend its bid and give Council time to meet with HRC.