Music Channel Blues

Business Plans Unfinished, Suggestions Shot Down

illustration by Doug Potter

It's still messy, only now the future of the Austin Music Network is at stake. And the mess is completely understandable given that at the highest level -- the city council -- people are still unclear about the most basic of things. At the last Telecommunications Infrastructure Sub-committee meeting on Oct 28, Councilmember Jackie Goodman confessed that with regards to the Austin Music Network, "I have a hard time figuring out who's the boss." It's probably tough for council to get a good sense of the current status of the AMN if they don't even know "who's the boss," but figuring out who is actually in charge is in no way sufficient to decipher what's going on with the AMN these days, as the process of trying to save the network is getting, well, crowded. Back up a bit. During the last budget go-round, the Financial Services department began making the deathbed for the network by leaving it out of the proposed 1997-98 budget. Then some money was "found" -- $150,000 or about six months' worth of expenses -- so the AMN could be kept going, with the implication that during that time staff would come up with a business plan to get the network off of public life-support at some point.

At the Oct 28 subcommittee meeting, the two officials who most directly oversee the AMN, Marilyn Fox and Paul Smolen, the director and assistant director, respectively, of the Office of Telecommunications and Regulatory Affairs (OTRA), reported to the subcommittee (which consists of Councilmembers Bill Spelman, Gus Garcia, and Goodman) that they still hadn't completed the business plan for the network. Fox, however, did tell the three councilmembers what had been done recently in an attempt to bolster the network's long term survival chances.

They informed the councilmembers that they had discussions with "a large grocery retailer" about the possibility of underwriting some AMN programming. Bumper stickers that say "AMN 15 Watch It" had also been made, not for sale but to, in Fox's words "promote awareness." And Fox said they had designed and planned to sell T-shirts if they "could get some underwriters from the local live music venues to kind of support the T-shirt production." A couple of calls confirmed they had talked to some clubs, though one person who had been contacted said the requested donation, which this source refused to specify, seemed "a little steep."

Fox also floated some new programming ideas AMN had been pursuing -- such as an educational series with the Austin Children's Museum where each show highlights a different musical instrument, and a rap night that showcases some of the rap dance contests taking place at area rec centers -- but these projects have yet to attract committed sponsors or underwriters. And that's a little problematic. It seems impolitic to go to the council subcommittee and say essentially that you haven't yet finished a business plan to get the network the money it needs to survive, but you have found new ways to spend what little is left.

In all fairness to Fox and Smolen, they are a little handicapped. First, from a commercial standpoint, the network is not seen as a valuable commodity because it has no advertising or marketing support. That makes it that much more difficult to bring potential sponsors on board. More importantly, Fox and Smolen have yet to talk to Time Warner, with which the city has its cable franchise agreement, to resolve some essential questions about the commercialization or partial commercialization of the network. In fact, Time Warner is proving to be one of, if not the biggest, stumbling block right now.

Fox and Smolen originally wanted to have the business plan ready to present at the next Telecommunications Infrastructure subcommittee meeting on November 25. But that might not be possible. In order to adequately finish that plan, they need to know what restrictions Time Warner will place on the network with regards to soliciting underwriters and commercial sponsors, as well as any restrictions on content.

According to the language of the current cable franchise agreement regarding the music channel, "Nothing herein shall prevent grantee, the city, or the channel's programmer from selling commercial advertising time on this channel as agreed by the parties." The problem is that the parties -- the city and Time Warner -- have yet to agree on the parameters of what constitutes "commercial advertising." Tough to make a business plan if you don't know who is allowed to give you money and what you can do with that money. And Time Warner would not schedule a meeting until December 2 (obviously after the Nov. 25 target date).

The city has not been idle, waiting for Godot to come to some meetings. Working in conjunction with some commercial entities, Smolen said, he has already been pursuing some co-productions, but refused to reveal details, citing concerns about tipping the city's hand. Smolen did venture to predict that if any of the pending proposals come through, it will bring in more than the network has brought in during any previous year. That's not saying a whole lot, though, as the AMN hasn't brought in much money because it has never had the human resources to pursue those types of co-productions. The tiny AMN staff exhausts its capabilities merely keeping the channel on the air. Only now -- with the fate of the network thrown into question and OTRA having gotten involved -- is some effort being put into getting people from the local business community to support the network.

Another move to solve the music channel's problems came in the form of a "request for content" (RFC) put out by OTRA back in August. The RFC was issued like a distress signal when it was still uncertain whether or not the network would obtain funding in the current budget. Four entities responded to the RFC, thus involving a host of new people looking to direct the future of the network.

One response to the RFC came from Rick Melchior as a representative of the 501 Group, a local production company. With the help of initial public funds, Melchior is looking to privatize the network over a couple of years, essentially making it just like any other for-profit network. A second response came from Lynne Cooksey, the wife of former Mayor Frank Cooksey, who, interestingly enough, is a lawyer who has represented Time Warner. Working with a group out of D.C. called Gross Strategies, Inc., Cooksey's submission dealt primarily with fundraising and not with actual programming content -- the rationale being that it's pointless to talk about programming without the money to produce it. Jay Ashcraft submitted what he called the "Perot solution," and expanded on that only by saying it was simply a "commercial solution" to saving the network.

Citing concerns about competition, Melchior and Ashcraft declined to discuss their plans in detail for the record. Cooksey referred questions to Gross Strategies in Washington, D.C., which, by press time, had not returned phone calls. However, representatives from Diverse Arts, an Austin-based multidisciplinary, multicultural arts cooperative, did show up at the Oct 28 sub-committee meeting to speak to the attending councilmembers about specific plans for the network. And their plans for the network are ambitious, to say the least. They want to expand programming to include all areas of the local arts community, including theatre, film, dance, etc.; and, paraphrasing the words of director Harold McMillan, to get Time Warner to sell the programming to their satellite guys and go national with it. That, theoretically, would bring in piles of money and make everyone happy.

The problem with that is twofold. First, the language of the current cable franchise agreement specifically stipulates that the channel (currently the Austin Music Network) be a music channel. It doesn't necessarily exclude other programming, but it very specifically states that the channel Time Warner provides is to be a music channel, and not a dance or a film channel. Second, the idea that Time Warner will want or be able to send out to other stations programming of the level currently airing on the AMN is simply unrealistic. That's not to pick on Diverse Arts, but they get the bulk of the criticism as they were the only people who showed up at the subcommittee meeting and wilfully gave any details or even generalities of their plans; the other RFCs haven't been made public.

In any case, as it turns out, neither Diverse Arts nor any of the other applicants were about to get their hands on the network's reins. In fact, rejection letters soon went out to all four, signed by Fox and dated Oct 29, the day after the subcommittee meeting.

Despite the rejections, discussions on the future of the network continued Nov 5 during a meeting of the Austin Arts and Entertainment Consortium, a kind of unofficial ad hoc group of people interested in the AMN. The meeting, which was organized by people from Diverse Arts, was attended by Fox, Smolen, and principals from all four groups that responded to the initial RFC, as well as various people from other parts of the music and arts community.

The meeting was productive in that it got everybody in the same room talking -- floating suggestions, presenting ideas, asking questions, and occasionally causing low-level conflict. The meeting was more illustrative, though, in its lack of ability to achieve anything of note. It took an awfully long while for some people to understand that it's senseless to talk about a channel incorporating the greater arts community -- film, dance, etc. -- when the franchise agreement between the city and Time Warner doesn't really allow for such a channel.

The other large debate, which was silly to have in the first place given the above, concerned where all of this new programming would come from. Several attendees assured the group that such material was out there and would come forward. But, as Ingrid Weigand, the current producer at the AMN, pointed out during all the verbal volleyball, if all of this programming does exist, then why hasn't it come to light yet? The AMN has always been open to working with outside people, and has put out many calls to the community for programming that they could play. Very, very few people have brought anything.

There was an awful lot of talk in the meeting in the first person plural -- a lot of "we"s, that is. "We need to do this," or "We should look into trying that." Unfortunately there is no consensus on who constitutes "we" in the consortium, and the tell-tale pronoun is probably still an "I." Despite getting rejection letters, both Ashcraft and Melchior explicitly said that they were still going to keep pushing their plans, and weren't interested in joining the larger group at the expense of compromising their intentions.

And, oh yeah, the people from the city -- Fox and Smolen -- still have authority over the AMN, and they are still going to present their business plan when they finish it.

So what does it all mean? Well, the fate of the network is at least as uncertain as it has been, only now that uncertainty involves more people. There are essentially two camps -- the city and the non-city -- and neither are cohesive right now.

From the non-city side, there are lots of cooks who can't even decide on a recipe -- and probably won't, since some of the interests still see themselves as competing with the others. But, with their RFC, Fox and Smolen, whether intentionally or not, have opened up a Pandora's box of new participants and brought those people in a little closer to the fray; and despite the fact that all four proposals got rejection letters, the language gives reason for the non-city people to stay interested and involved. The letter explicitly states that it "does not preclude further discussion on points of merit in [the] proposal."

But the clock is ticking. The AMN money runs out in March. And what happens after that is still anybody's guess at this point. At the Oct. 28 subcommittee meeting, Goodman said, "From my perspective I just want y'all to know it'll be over -- it is annexation time so I won't say over my dead body, somebody might take me up on it -- it will be over my bruised and beaten body before we give up.... It was not within my expectations that within a year AMN would become totally self-sufficient. I think a nice goal would be to someday in the foreseeable future be virtually self-sufficient."

Yet, almost immediately after that, Gus Garcia gave the impression that the six months was it in terms of a grace period, claiming, "I think what the council was looking for was to make this an enterprise in which entrepreneurial principles would come into play so that this thing gets off the ground and it is not subsidized by the city. I think that was the fundamental principle on which we allocated $150,000."

Unless a clearly defined and well coordinated plan for the network emerges in the very near future, it's entirely possible that shortly after next year's South by Southwest, you could flip on channel 15 only to find that the music has died.

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