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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.)
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