Austin @ Large: Access of Evil

It's a conspiracy! Defending Austin from the music network.

Austin At Large
Just when I thought the interminable soap opera of the Austin Music Network couldn't get any more inane, or pathetic, along comes Alex Jones to take it up a notch. As you may have heard, the Lizard King of cable access is in a total frothing rabid-dog freakout – that is, his usual self – about the planned shotgun wedding of AMN and Austin Community Television.

Today (Thursday), the City Council is set to vote to sweep up the husks and leavings of AMN and dump them into ACTV's sandbox – with an eye toward freeing up Channel 15, current home of the Music Network, for the privately funded (that is, "professional") music and arts channel being flogged around City Hall by people from L.A. Or something like that. I'll be watching to see if some evidence of, you know, a policy strategy – regarding either the music industry or the city's telecom infrastructure – burbles up from under the dais. I'm not hopeful.

You may be wondering just what bestial acts are being performed by council members in the Polaroids AMN General Manager Louis Meyers must have in his possession for AMN to merit the council's continued favors after so many years of embarrassing failure. But more likely, the council is blackmailing itself; the desire to keep AMN alive, in whatever form, by any means necessary, will help take the blame and sting out of the city's failure to pull off what seemed like such a no-brainer and such a good Austin fit. It's a pretense that I expect will be maintained until AMN's corpse starts to really stink.

But Alex Jones doesn't care about that; he sees not a flummoxed City Council trying to scrape AMN off its full plate and feed it to the dog, but an insidious conspiracy of state-run media infiltrating the libertarian paradise of cable-access. Tyranny! Free speech is under attack! As I watched last week's raucous meeting of the council's telecom subcommittee, itself infiltrated by Jones, his acolytes, and dozens of ACTV producers in various states of grievance, I could only think of the bit from Monty Python and the Holy Grail: "I'm being oppressed! I'm being oppressed!"

Cart Before Horse

Such reveries made watching the proceedings bearable; surely, subcommittee members Jackie Goodman and Betty Dunkerley have now done ample penance for their sins in trying, beyond reason, to keep AMN on life support. (New papa Raul Alvarez mostly sat like a stone through the harangues.) Now, in case it's not clear already, I think Alex Jones is 90% poseur and 110% asshole, which makes him truly larger than life. But on balance, I think the ACTV producers are onto something here.

Technically, they were onto someone else's something; the (apparently separate) decisions to welcome AMN into the access fold and to rejigger the formats of ACTV's three channels into content-specific programming were made by the board of ACTV, not by anyone at City Hall. But I also doubt that ACTV – which only a couple of weeks earlier had reportedly thrown heavy shade on Meyers' bright idea for a merger – is entirely unaware of the wishes of what should be at least a four-vote council majority. If Goodman or Dunkerley had told Meyers, or ACTV, or the city's own telecom staff, that they liked ACTV just as it was and really didn't want to see it reinvented – and certainly not just to make room for the Music Network – this episode of the soap opera might well be over.

Now, I'm agnostic on the wisdom of turning the three ACTV channels into an arts-and-education channel (featuring AMN), an inspirational channel, and a free-speech channel. It would certainly disrupt the current free-for-all flow, where Truckers and Hookers and Sunday Best and the Esoteric Science Roundtable can all appear on the same channel on the same day. But it might also make ACTV more, um, accessible to those of us who aren't access junkies and who'd tune in more often if we knew how to avoid watching Alex Jones. The fact that ACTV producers might not get their ideal time slots doesn't seem to me to be much of a problem, but then again, I know how to program my VCR.

Many producers expressed to the council subcommittee exactly the sorts of outrage and anguish you'd expect from rank-and-file workers whose outfit is being dramatically reorganized, and perhaps downsized, in ways that don't make sense to them, about which they were not consulted. But several also hit on an obvious disconnect: ACTV is more than three decades old – having gotten its start even before the city had the franchise agreements with Time Warner and Grande Communications that now provide for its operations. (I trust the libertarians who have eagerly suckled at the access-TV teat realize the irony here.) It has operated on a shoestring all that time and is by many measures one of America's most successful access systems. The AMN story is, as you know, quite different. By this reading, if there were any justice, ACTV would take over Channel 15, send Meyers packing, and put its own (fairly substantial) music programming up under the AMN brand name.

Cut to the Chase

As proposed, though, the Music Network may end up with as few as 10 hours a week of programming. But that's still more than most producers get, and – pardon me if I stray a little close to Alex Jones here – it has now involved City Hall in deciding what gets broadcast, and who gets resources to do the broadcasting, on ACTV, thus breaching a wall that many in this community have long striven to keep sound. On the one hand, the change being contemplated here may in fact be too timid; it would be useful to take all the telecom resources in play here – AMN and Channel 15, ACTV and its three channels, the city's own Channel 6, and the channels used and programmed by the county, AISD, and ACC – and throw them on the table, working with all stakeholders to craft a plan that makes the most of these generally underutilized assets, especially given how media-savvy this town is (a fact that ACTV proves by its very scale). But if we're not going to do that, then I'm not sure why it's worth going through grief simply to bail out (for the umpteenth time) the lost cause that is the Music Network. If all we need to keep the council happy is 10 hours of AMN programming, then why can't it run on Channel 6? end story

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Austin Music Network, ACTV, Alex Jones, Austin Community Television, Louis Meyers, Jackie Goodman, Betty Dunkerley, Raul Alvarez

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