Live and Unscripted

Ringside at the AMN/AMP/ACTV death-cage match

Live and Unscripted
Illustration By Doug Potter

"The whole purpose of local ACAC/ACTV station programming is to be content-neutral; to allow free, unfettered, public access to programming of a broad range of opinions and ideas." So say six Austin Community Television producers who are now in the first stages of legal action against the Austin Community Access Center – the nonprofit that runs ACTV – over proposed changes to the operation that they deem both "censorship" and "the beginning of the slow death of access TV."

Now, if you've ever watched ACTV, you might be forgiven for thinking that the producers are being, well, as shrill and overblown as they are on TV. And the public debate in recent weeks over ACTV – with throngs of access producers and fans besieging and haranguing the ACTV board, the city's boards and commissions, and the City Council's own telecom subcommittee – has doubtlessly generated more heat than light. But it's nonetheless true that over the last year, from various quarters and largely under the public radar, proposals have emerged that could significantly change Austin's access-TV operation, the oldest and largest of its kind in the U.S.

Many might argue that significant change is exactly what's needed on this front, and that producers and their allies are resisting change for the same reasons everybody does, not because inalienable rights are at issue. Such debate may be inevitable given the ironic, as well as iconic, status of ACTV – a bastion of democratic, or anarchic, or libertarian (with a small L), or populist sentiment, but simultaneously one that's entirely a creature of government and corporate power, governed by contracts and regulations and legal authorities, in which the producers and viewers legally have no real say. ACTV may be a (publicly sponsored) marketplace of ideas, but it ain't a co-op.

Nonetheless, as the city's telecom policymakers have now learned the hard way, it's probably not a good idea to talk casually about putting commercial programming on ACTV, or screening and segregating programs based on their content, or getting the city or ACTV board directly involved in programming, or giving more control over ACTV and its channels to the cable companies. These are all specters raised, and not without cause, by the last year's worth of proposed tinkering, and it's no surprise that ACTV partisans would gird themselves to fight back. Based on events of recent days, the momentum appears to be going their way.

Looking for Partners

This stuff all erupted over the summer, of course, as City Hall endeavored to give a proper burial – with provisions for an afterlife – to the Austin Music Network. After eight star-crossed years, the money-losing, long-controversial AMN, on which the city has spent more than $5 million, will, as of this writing, cease to exist on Sept. 30. The city, however, is still in a quandary about what happens to AMN's assets – its brand name, its archive of music and performance video, its tech equipment. And, most of all, its slot on the dial: Channel 15, which is not, strictly speaking, a "public access" channel, but which is guaranteed to the city through a special provision of its franchise agreements with Time Warner and Grande Communications, the city's two cable providers. (See "What's On Access?")

Ever since last year, when AMN's days became officially and finally numbered, there has been discussion of converting Channel 15 to a for-profit, privately run, and locally focused music and entertainment channel that receives no city funds. This was tried once before (1998-2001), except for the no-city-funds part, when AMN was put into the hands of entrepreneur Rick Melchior, with a spectacular lack of success. But the current proposal on the table, by longtime broadcasting entrepreneur Connie Wodlinger and her group Austin Music Partners, nonetheless has gotten a receptive hearing at City Hall. The AMP deal would not use the AMN name, would have access to the archive and would further add to it from its own productions, and would earn its keep both via sponsorship and by marketing the channel to cable systems outside Austin. Wodlinger's financial projections call for AMP to make a $3.3 million profit by 2009.

The AMP proposal is currently being worked over by the City Council telecom subcommittee, chaired by Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman, and the city Music Commission and Telecommunications Commission. The two boards held a joint meeting last week that featured five hours of citizen communication from angry ACTV producers.

Right now, other than Wodlinger, there are no "partners" in AMP. But her private investors would logically include other telecom companies, perhaps even Time Warner itself – which had its own, not-very-fruitful talks with the city, earlier, about taking over Channel 15 and reinventing the music channel. That's not a very exciting thought for either citizens or Goodman, who both want Channel 15 to remain in the city's hands, and are instead seeking to beef up the proposed agreement with Wodlinger to ensure she can't transfer the channel to other partners if AMP's plan goes south.

More pressing, though, is the fact that Wodlinger does not expect AMP could be up and running before Jan. 1, assuming she and the city can finalize their deal soon. The city says it has backup plans to make sure Channel 15 does not go dark – and the franchise agreements do not specify that the city loses the channel if it indeed does go dark – nonetheless, it's a fate all sides would like to avoid.

Enter ACTV.

What's in a Brand?

Thanks to City Council action last month, ACTV is already, in effect, babysitting AMN – providing board oversight and handling its meager remaining cash – until Sept. 30. Currently under discussion is an extension of that arrangement beyond then, until whatever point AMP gets itself together, funded by a grant from AMP to ACTV. (This is among the fruits of the once-bitter, now sweet relationship between Wodlinger and AMN, specifically the latter's general manager, Louis Meyers, who would remain at the helm during the interim.)

What happens after that, or instead of that, is what's gotten the producers all riled up. For various reasons, both practical and sentimental, Goodman and others at City Hall, as well as the network's own partisans, would like to see AMN survive in some form, apart from AMP. Thus they've entertained the idea of allowing it to be permanently adopted by ACTV, which would run 10 hours a week or so of AMN programming as part of the regular schedule of the three access channels, use the AMN brand name, and inherit AMN's equipment. At first, when Meyers approached the ACTV board with this concept, he got a cool reception. Then things changed.

As it happens, ACTV has spent the last year talking about what it could do to raise its organizational profile, extend its reach beyond the small (though a lot larger and more devoted than you might expect) current access-TV audience, attract more support from the private sector to supplement its operational grants from Time Warner and Grande, and the like. One of these strategies, lumped under the rubric "image enhancement," is a proposal to "brand" ACTV's three channels by devoting each to specific content – "I-TV" (inspirational), "EATV" (education and arts), and "Free-TV" (the "free speech" content that usually comes to mind when you think "access TV").

At the point that the producers loudly intervened, this change was still in the trial-balloon stage, and as late as last week, the channel-branding scheme was termed by ACTV Executive Manager John Villarreal as "just a proposal" that hadn't been adopted. At its meeting last week, the board voted to refer the topic to its Operations Committee. This would suggest channel branding is unlikely to be implemented in the upcoming ACTV schedule beginning Oct. 1; however, allegations surfaced over the weekend that board members, after their meeting Thursday, went directly to the ACTV operations staff in an attempt to get the not-yet-formally-adopted changes implemented in the new schedule.

Channel branding is in itself unpalatable to many ACTV producers and partisans, since by definition it involves segregating programming by content, and could limit the amount of air time (or at least attractive time slots) available to "free speech." Producers also point to specific actions by the board and its members – such as an edict to pull from the regular schedule religious programming that "criticizes other faiths" – to support their charges that the board is unacceptably meddling in the access message, and thus violating ACTV's charter and bylaws, its contract with the city, and/or the city's franchise agreements with Time Warner and Grande.

Integrating AMN into the "EATV" channel represented a further outrage for at least some producers, since it would effectively give not just the board but City Hall a role in deciding what gets shown on access TV, particularly if AMN producers were guaranteed air time without going through the normal ACTV channels. (As it stands, they wouldn't be.) But EATV is actually even more controversial than that. As presented to ACTV at various points over the summer by both Meyers and by board member Jonathan Clark, EATV could be a "semi-commercial" channel with corporate sponsorship that would also be marketed to other cities.

It's questionable whether such a concept would even be legally feasible for ACTV to implement on one of Austin's "public, educational, and government" channels – the term of art used by federal law, which regulates a community's entitlement to and use of these resources – or, if it were feasible, what the ramifications would be to Time Warner and Grande's obligation to provide PEG channels in Austin. It's also unseemly, in the view of the producers, that this idea would be borne by Clark, a media-marketing pro and entrepreneur who's overseen the board's "image enhancement" effort – and who's also the founder of Teach One Entertainment, a company that produces educational TV programming. (Teach One's signature character is "Thursty the Elephant," created by Clark, around which he's produced a TV pilot.)

Suspended Animations

Hence, the tag-team public wrestling match of the summer, refereed – though without much apparent relish – by Goodman and city staff. The six producers upped the ante last month by initiating legal proceedings, asking for a hearing (scheduled for Sept. 29) to determine whether they can depose Clark, ACTV Executive Director John Villarreal, and three other ACTV board members. Two of those board members, Sharon Brady and R. Lee Hill, have now resigned, along with a third, Eric Strom, unmentioned in the producers' pleadings.

The resignation of yet another board member – Jonathan Clark – is one of many measures proposed by producers for resolving the ACTV crisis, along with abandoning the channel-branding plans; transferring AMN lock, stock, and tape deck to ACTV; and unspecified "conditions" on Villarreal's further employment. Another fruit of the conflict has been the creation of two different producer advisory groups to the board, which a year ago amended its bylaws to create a non-voting producers' slot, but has yet to fill it.

The producers would like to see "several" voting members from among their number on the board. While the lack of communication between ACTV and its producers is infuriating to the latter and troubling to outside observers (like City Council Member Raul Alvarez, who sits on the telecom subcommittee), the organization has no defined role for producer input in its decision-making. Nor do the performance measures ACTV has to meet under its city contract include any measure of producer satisfaction.

However, as of press time, not one of the various changes proposed this summer is guaranteed to happen – be it ACTV rescheduling, a city deal with AMP, or the continued survival of AMN in any form. As of Oct. 1, with the start of the new fiscal year, AMN is dead, and ACTV is intact, unless many decisions are made at the last minute: after this week's budget hearings, the next City Council meeting is Sept. 30. end story

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public access TV, Access TV, Austin Community Television, ACTV, Austin Community Access Center, ACAC, Telecom Subcommittee, Jackie Goodman, Austin Music Network, AMN, Austin Music Partners, AMP, Constance Wodlinger, Louis Meyers, I-TV, EATV, Free TV, image management, Channel 15, Jonathan Clark

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