Nashville's channel-surfing insomniacs know the words "public access" well. But for the uninitiated (and better rested), the term is as much a warning as an invitation. Just south of Channel 20 on your boob-tube dial, low-def wonders are streaming, waiting to suck you in like an oddball infomercial at 2 a.m. You've seen Lost? How about two guys with a model airplane on the banks of Percy Priest? Big fan of American Idol? Here's your neighbor singing into a hairbrush in front of the mirror. It's far more real than reality TV.
On these idiosyncratic channels, free from concern for advertisers (there are none) or Nielsen ratings (you won't get cancelled for poor viewership), you can get up out of your chair, look into the camera and do your best Howard Beale. You can sing songs about astrology — like the legendary Los Angeles novelty crooner Harvey Sid Fisher — or berate sinners in a nails-on-blackboard whine, like the notorious Dallas TV minister Jonathan Bell. Or, like the acclaimed public access channel run out of Germantown High School near Memphis, you can provide a mix of self-produced arts, news and current affairs programming that shames the local network affiliates. After all, you own the airwaves.
It's hard to imagine that George C. Stoney, considered the father of public access television, could have seen where we were headed, back when he was pioneering the everyman medium in the early 1970s. In our time, people make billions providing forums for free speech at its least topical — Google is making big bank off of your cat videos — while what appears as a wide array of media sources is actually owned by a small group of white guys.
That's why public access is more valuable than ever.
Its origins are as simple as they are hard to explain. In exchange for using public property such as poles and fiber optic lines — satellite companies are, for obvious reasons, exempt — cable providers sign franchise agreements with the cities where they do business. As a part of these agreements, cities can stipulate that cable companies contribute funds to maintain specifically designated PEG (public, educational, government) channels. (The paperwork between Comcast and Nashville, a public document, requires that Comcast pay Metro a franchise fee of 5 percent of gross revenues — $7.5 million in 2010 — as compensation for use of public rights-of-way, and that it contribute $100,000 in PEG support, annually.) These funds allow community access to the airwaves, hence protecting the public against monolithic control of the TV medium — whether it's by invaders, aliens, Russkies or Kabletown.
Of those, the forces of commerce are by far the most insidious. And that's the challenge Nashville's PEG channels currently face: They're locked in a PR battle for increased funding from the city's dominant cable provider, Comcast.
The corporate cable giant recently seized local headlines by alleging that city officials have been unreasonable in their demands. According to Comcast, Metro has insisted upon a 1,200 percent increase in its share of your monthly cable bill — which sounds terrifying, until you learn it means raising the fee from 5 cents to 65 cents per bill. (AT&T is also beginning to contribute a prorated amount, as their product, U-Verse, expands its customer base in Nashville.)
Metro officials have dismissed Comcast's outrage as fancy PR footwork, insisting that they've been neither demanding nor unreasonable and that the 65-cent number is merely a holding figure in negotiations. Moreover, they say, Comcast has continued to raise the rates it charges customers throughout the 16-year franchise agreement, without increasing contributions to PEG. (The City Paper reports that Comcast denied a request for a list of all fee increases since 1995.)
Not surprisingly, Comcast's version of events goes somewhat differently. In an email sent to the Scene last week, Sara Jo Houghland, Comcast's director of government affairs and public relations, said Comcast is "supportive of Metro and PEG" and that they are "proud to be Metro's partner." Still, the disagreement about who said what and when continues. Houghland echoed previous statements made by Comcast's area vice president for Nashville, John Gauder, saying that Metro had consistently presented a proposal, not a "holding figure," for $1.2 million (the 1,200 percent increase) in annual PEG fees from the start.
"We consistently responded that a 1,200 percent increase was far too excessive, would affect our customers and would damage our company in the Nashville market," she said. "ONLY [sic] after this dispute became public, did Metro say that the 1,200 percent increase was simply a 'holding figure.' "
As for how it will affect Comcast customers, or if it should at all, the two sides are no closer to each other. PEG advocates argue that, in theory, funding for public access stations is not intended to be a tax on subscribers. Of course, if cable providers raise their rates to cover the revenue hit, it can easily become one in practice. When asked, Houghland wouldn't say whether an increase in PEG funding would mean bigger cable bills for subscribers, though her answer would seem to be a thinly veiled "Yes."
"The FCC has been consistent in encouraging cable operators to list PEG fees on the bill, as a charge that should be visible to and collected from cable consumers," she said. "Federal law does not expect that PEG fees should be paid from operating expenses associated with gaining a franchise."
Metro's IT Director, Keith Durbin, says that when it comes to your monthly cable bill, the city's hands are clean.
"Metro has no ability to dictate rates for Comcast's customers, nor do we have the ability to dictate how their bill is stated," he told the Scene. "I certainly accept that the FCC allows them to delineate the PEG support fee on the bill."
Houghland says the people should be heard and, citing an independent third-party survey of Comcast customers, that they've already taken Comcast's side.
"Those most impacted by any change in fees are Comcast customers," she said. "They should have the loudest voice, and they have clearly stated they aren't interested in more programming and certainly don't want an increase in PEG fees."
Whether such estimations about the will of the people are accurate will soon be known. In a community meeting to be held at 6 p.m. on Thursday, June 30, at Metro's Howard School Building, citizens will have the chance to properly lend their voices to the increasingly public squabble between the city and Comcast. Until now, public comment on the issue has mostly come in the form of anonymous Internet posts. But at the meeting, the people will be able to address officials who will recommend the city's final proposal.
Current negotiations notwithstanding, community television in Nashville has faced its share of difficulties — a noble proposition plagued by frequent fits of static. Veterans of the arts and entertainment community see the city's PEG channels as an often mismanaged and underappreciated resource, in a city ripe for such an outlet.
Yet they also see the channels' new organization and leadership as a golden opportunity for Nashville's PEG channels to become what they should be — a showcase for the city's artists and musicians, a source of much-needed local public affairs programming, and a celebration of all the squirrelly, rambunctious and sometimes bizarre things that make our community unique. You want to be a star? Here's the one place in Music City where that's easy.
If there is optimism going forward, as there seems to be in many quarters, it is due in no small part to Kim Hayes, executive director of Nashville Education, Community and Arts Television (NECAT). The nonprofit organization has been running things at community channels MCAtv9 (arts), iQtv10 (education) and Access Nashville 19 (presenting locally produced shows, like that of local cult hero The Bat Poet) since Metro's reorganization and consolidation of the PEG channels a little more than a year ago. The organization exists to keep programming and scheduling decisions out of Metro's hands, preserving the ideals of free expression and public access, which are among the channels' most fundmental goals.
The situation Hayes inherited couldn't have been more problematic. The three PEG channels — separate entities from Metro government Channel 3 — were tangled in an organizational snarl, wedged into a studio full of ramshackle equipment on the Nashville State campus, and expected to operate on a spit-and-duct-tape budget barely enough for one channel, let alone three. People who tried to join Channel 19 claimed they found a culture of dysfunction that thwarted progress and discouraged new blood.
Meanwhile, at Channels 9 and 10, executive director Michael Catalano (who presided over the mid-1990s rebirth of the Nashville Film Festival) made inroads into the city's creative community, tapping local artists, musicians and filmmakers for low-cost original programming. But his sloppy bookkeeping and management got him in hot water with Metro Legal, and he resigned in 2008.
Durbin, a former Metro councilman, says that before the reorganization and creation of NECAT, public access TV in Nashville "hadn't been managed to its potential, and the oversight hadn't been there." Longtime Channel 19 associates say a housecleaning of former personnel and the hiring of Hayes signaled a positive shift in the channels' future. The question now is, what can the city's PEG channels become — and how will NECAT get the money to make it happen?
For many viewers, community access channels are but speed bumps on the way to CNN or ESPN. The exact number of channel surfers who come to a complete stop at public access stations is anyone's guess. Hayes says that NECAT has not had the funds needed to track ratings themselves. While Comcast could feasibly obtain the information, it's an effort they have not yet been motivated to undertake. Advertising is not allowed on the stations, but such figures could benefit NECAT's efforts to secure underwriters and fundraising support.
Whether their viewership can be measured or not, Hayes acknowledges that raising the quality of programming — content as well as production value — is the way to draw an audience. But without increased funding, she says, their offerings aren't likely to improve. And viewers who don't deem the channels worth watching presumably see little point in increasing their funding — presenting a catch-22 for Hayes and her skeleton crew.
Hayes and other public access advocates believe the disconnect is largely due to lack of awareness. They say too many Nashvillians don't know what they're missing — i.e., what we already have in these lower channels, and what we could gain if they were given a fighting chance.
"I think if we can increase awareness, increase our openness to the community and improve our equipment and production quality, it's going to mushroom," Hayes tells the Scene. "I think people just don't know."
Even if it is a work in progress here, the model can certainly work. Similar operations in the aforementioned Memphis suburb of Germantown, whose community access programming has been nationally recognized, and Knoxville are thriving. Likewise, comparable markets such as St. Paul, Minn., and Grand Rapids, Mich., have been successfully producing the type of top-shelf content Hayes would like to provide in Nashville.
In most cases, though, such efforts are supported by larger budgets than NECAT's — a relative shoestring of about $300,000, which includes roughly $150,000 from Metro's general fund, $100,000 from Comcast and around $50,000 from underwriters, fundraising, producing for hire, and fees paid by local producers for classes and dues. By comparison, Community Television of Knoxville works with an operating and capital budget of around $700,000, according to general manager and chief operating officer David Vogel, who responded to an inquiry by email.
But while even the smallest increase in contributions from Comcast could make a big difference for NECAT, Hayes says the organization is doing as much as it can to improve quality and community involvement now. In the past, she says, not enough attention was given to fundraising and seeking grants. Evidence of her diligence in reversing that trend has recently arrived in the form of a $3,135 technology grant from the Frist Foundation.
Additionally, Hayes stresses the importance of keeping the cost to local producers as low as possible. By definition, community access television should be accessible to all of the community. Currently, Davidson County residents can produce their own show on Channel 19 for $75 annually; to do so, they must take two classes, which cost $50 each. Put another way: For about the cost of a Beatles box set on iTunes, you could unleash (or inflict) your inner Stephen Colbert, Oprah Winfrey or Wink Martindale on an unsuspecting public. (For information on starting your own show, go to necat.tv and click the "Become a Producer" link.)
Right now, Channel 19's programming is a hodgepodge that ranges from Billy Block's live Americana jamboree and shows on legal affairs to slots devoted to Vietnamese, Somali and Kurdish viewers. Yet if you want proof that public access television is truly a platform for anyone, you needn't look further than Channel 19's elder statesmen — talk show host and vice chair of the NECAT board of directors Jesse Goldberg, and the aforementioned Bat Poet, aka Joey Bowker, whose show makes terms like "free expression" sound inadequate.
Bowker, a longtime cabbie now in his 17th year as a Channel 19 producer, moved to Nashville from Chicago as a poet and self-proclaimed "lifetime rock 'n' roller." His rise to underground stardom began the usual way: He dropped 60 bucks on a Batman mask at Spencer's and started a TV show he describes as "like Saturday Night Live, only crazier." What makes The Bat Poet Show and other public access programming a challenge is the same thing that keeps it pure — no one is making money off of this stuff. Though a hindrance to some, Bowker says that lack of compensation means freedom.
"If I want to play a Stray Cats song and dance around," he says, as if it's the only thing a sensible person would do, "we can do it, because we're not making any money."
Over the years, Bowker has gained a reputation as a sort of mad genius of the public airwaves. He points out that to many, for good or ill, Channel 19 has become known simply as "The Bat Poet Channel." He tells the Scene that he's even gotten interest from network affiliates like Fox's WZTV. Had he started as a network phenom, we'd assume him to be an actor gone Joaquin Phoenix. But on public access television, such eccentricity is no postmodern experiment.
Goldberg, a PEG vet who has produced some 600 shows, represents the other side of the Channel 19 spectrum. Having hosted five different talk shows in his time at the station, three currently, Goldberg leans more toward public affairs programming — as on his show State of the City, which features interviews with members of, and candidates for, the Metro Council.
Other times you'll find him behind the desk for Mind Your Own Music Business, in which he chats about songs you've heard of with their writers, whom you most likely haven't. Though a far cry from The Bat Poet's performance-art circus, his shows similarly typify the public access ideal: They give you something you won't see anywhere else.
"We give a voice to people you wouldn't normally hear anywhere else," Goldberg told the Scene by phone last week. "You see Glen Campbell on TV, but you don't see the guy who wrote 'Rhinestone Cowboy.' "
With NECAT, and Hayes at its helm, the chances of attracting new producers are better than ever before. Hayes says the way to do it is to have a unified staff in place that welcomes anyone who's curious. Everyone who walks in the door gets a tour of the studio, including nosy reporters.
If anyone should know whether things are going in the right direction, it's Goldberg, who has been present for the ups and downs of Nashville's public access endeavor.
"It's greatly improved since the transition," he says when asked about the new guard. "If you have good people running it, it runs well. Right now, we have some really good people running it. [Hayes] is a great administrator and John Ferguson has really turned the place around as a studio manager."
Ferguson, who serves as PEG studio manager as part of Durbin's staff, says that an increase in funds is needed to make PEG the best resource to the community that it can be — but not just because of what it offers viewers. Increased funds, he says, would allow for an update in equipment, giving producers the chance to work in a more professional environment.
Toward that end, Hayes says NECAT is making an effort to get local high schools involved by offering internships. They're also encouraging high school media, broadcasting and art departments to submit their students' work as possible content for iQtv10. In addition, they've begun a partnership with Hillwood High School and will enter into a similar one with Pearl-Cohn High in the fall. Hayes has also reached out to the local film community and refers to the PEG studios as an incubator for young talent and new ideas.
At the same time, Durbin sees the channels as a vital resource for Nashville's minority communities. As one example, he says, public access TV provides the city's vibrant Kurdish population with a platform to create programming specifically applicable to the concerns and interests of their community.
In a city like Nashville, full of talented moonlighters with aspirations of success in arts and entertainment, the idea of less-than-thriving public access television is perplexing to many. In Goldberg's estimation, it's not just underappreciated for what it already is; it's an untapped resource waiting for what it could be.
"There's good stuff on there. There's stuff worth watching. The potential is amazing," he says, the mischief in his voice rising — not quite to Bat Poet levels, but higher than your average talk show host. "Where else could a guy like me come on TV in a T-shirt and not get thrown off the air?"
Goldberg's question is rhetorical, but some might say it triggers an obvious answer: YouTube. In an era when the most popular viral videos garner millions of views overnight, it could be argued that the Wayne and Garth world of public access is less essential than ever. Instead of paying for two $50 classes and $75 in annual dues, anyone can upload a homemade video to YouTube for free.
Still, there's something to be said for maintaining a place for the people on more traditional airwaves, and in that sense, NECAT's struggles share a common thread with WRVU's. Sure, now that a new classical format has taken over at the old address (bittersweet symphonies, indeed), the Vanderbilt community station can still be picked up on the Internet (with DJs returning this fall), but it's just another instance of the World Wide Web being offered as a trade, as if it were a fair deal. Furthermore, Channel 19's class fees and annual dues ensure that producers have at least a modicum of ambition and determination, unlike some stoned schlub videoing his cat playing the piano. And if NECAT can secure more funding, the production value and content of its programs are likely to improve.
Whether that funding increase materializes — and if it does, whether Comcast or its subscribers will pay the tab — remains to be seen. Thursday's community meeting will provide a chance for citizens to voice their opinion on the matter. Of course, they could always just stay home and comment on the Internet.
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