Pay TV?

Writ large, public-access TV can go far beyond the Wayne’s World scenario of two guys and a video camera.

That’s the pitch Asheville digital-media consultant David McConville of Black Box Studio made to the Buncombe County Economic Development Commission last week.

“If we do this right, this could be huge,” McConville told the group on July 25.

He and other members of the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce’s Information Technology Council believe a savvy proposal for local public-access TV could help fund a fully equipped studio that could double as a multimedia arts-and-education center.

Such a center, they maintain, could represent a practical economic-development strategy for helping Asheville and Buncombe County become a multimedia hot spot — one of the Chamber’s stated goals. By offering hands-on training to talented young graduates of local schools, who often have to leave the mountains to find work in video, DVD production, computer animation and other multimedia fields, the center would also help local businesses that need a trained work force, says McConville.

The idea isn’t brand-new, but the concept is now better developed and has gathered more support than it had back in February, when McConville and a group of like-minded people urged the Buncombe County commissioners to seek more money for public-access TV under the local cable-TV contract, now up for renewal. The IT Council members backing the proposal include representatives of Ironwood Media Group, a local multimedia production-and-design company, and Blue Ridge Motion Pictures.

The recent pitch comes just days before an Aug. 6 meeting at which the county commissioners are scheduled to consider whether to approve a new 12-year franchise agreement with Charter Communications — or temporarily extend the current contract.

A contract extension could allow time for a privately-hired independent consultant to take a look at the contract and see how a multimedia arts-and-education center could fit in — an idea McConville is proposing to Buncombe County Manager Wanda Greene.

One of the issues on the table is how much Charter is willing to pony up to create a public-access channel (including production facilities) and provide operating support. The money would be shared with the educational and government channels already in operation (the three are collectively called PEG).

A July 2 draft of the contract — which the two sides have not yet agreed upon — proposes that Charter pay the county a one-time PEG grant of $340,000 in the first year, which could help cover the project’s start-up costs. The draft also calls for Charter to pay the county an ongoing PEG support fee starting at 30 cents per customer per month (which comes to $122,400 annually with the current number of subscribers). As nonrepetitive programming increases, the PEG support fee would increase to as much as 50 cents per customer, according to the contract.

The latest draft is scaled back considerably from what the county was proposing last December. At that time, the county wanted Charter to provide $750,000 for equipment and operating costs for all three PEG channels — to be divided between Asheville and Buncombe County — within the first six months. Beginning in the second year, the county was seeking annual payments of $500,000 to be divided among the three channels.

The shift has several advocates worried that the county’s negotiator, John Howell (much of whose professional experience has been in working for the telecommunications industry) hasn’t pressed hard enough for adequate PEG support.

For his part, Howell says his experience puts him in a unique position to represent cities and counties, adding that he’ll continue to represent Buncombe County’s interests in the negotiations.

Under the latest draft, Charter would reserve the right to pass along both these costs by increasing cable rates to its 34,000 subscribers in the unincorporated parts of the county by at least 55 cents a month.

“That’s one of the proposals on the table,” says Janet Cloyde, Charter’s director of operations for Western North Carolina. “We’re not finished negotiating, so I’m not sure where we’ll end up.”

The practice of passing on the cost of PEG programming to cable customers is perfectly legal, though advocates find it infuriating (see sidebar).

The argument for the multimedia center has also been boosted by a book published April 30, The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life by Professor Dan Florida of Carnegie Mellon University. He argues that cities that can retain or attract the so-called “creative class” — everyone from artists to writers to high-tech professionals — will prosper. Such a center — ideally, located in Asheville’s vibrant downtown — could be a cornerstone for keeping and attracting exactly those sorts of people, McConville insists.

And having more local multimedia entrepreneurs could only help Charter’s business, McConville notes, since many of them would probably use Charter’s high-speed Internet access.

On another front, it appears that proponents of the multimedia arts-and-education center may have common ground with the Asheville Public Access Commission, which is working to set up a nonprofit organization that would run a public-access station with money from the city and county.

“The commission is doing everything in its power to have a public-access station, so if we can work together with folks at the Chamber of Commerce and David’s group, we’re more than happy to do that,” said Public Access Commission secretary Mark Goldstein.

In fact, the two groups plan to meet soon to discuss how they can collaborate, Goldstein said, adding: “We feel very strongly that if we’re all trying to push in different directions, our chances of having a successful outcome for all of this is a lot worse.”

Goldstein, however, also wants to make sure that the public-access station would be a comfortable place for any member of the public who wanted to participate, as well as for folks trying to get career-based technical training.

During last week’s EDC meeting, Greene asked McConville exactly how much money would be needed to put together a multimedia arts-and-education center. McConville hedged on the answer, though a sample studio budget included in his presentation listed about $500,000 in equipment costs, plus $250,000 in annual salaries for staffers. That doesn’t include the cost of building the facility and other expenses, however.

And divided among the three PEG channels, the $340,000 initial payment plus the roughly $120,000 in annual support in the July 2 contract draft is only enough to buy “a camera in a closet,” McConville told the EDC.

But rather than directly propose a specific amount, McConville planned to propose to Greene that an independent consultant (hired through the IT Council with private money) take a look at the contract and offer an opinion on how much it would take to launch and maintain such a center.

After talking with Greene and County commissioner/EDC Chairman David Young after the EDC meeting, McConville seemed hopeful.

“I do believe that we’ve come up with a classic win/win situation, and everyone could walk away benefiting from that,” said McConville.

[Dirk Konig, a media arts center director from Grand Rapids, Mich., will give a free public talk at 7 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 2, at Laurel Forum at UNCA’s Karpen Hall. His topic: Building Community Through Media: An Introduction to Media Arts Centers. For info on the Grand Rapids Community Media Center, see www.grcmc.org. For more info on the proposed WNC media arts center, check out www.themap.org.]

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