Joined in Progress
Three local channels get Austin back with the program but is anybody watching?
"Television, which has such an enormous capacity for greatness, remains the most timid medium in the communications universe."
Ted Koppel, Broadcasting & Cable, 75th Anniversary Special Edition
Most people take it for granted. Some start their day with it, shuffling out of bedrooms and turning it on as part of their morning ritual. Others turn to it after a long day's work, falling asleep to its glow. Many take pride in saying they don't watch it, enumerating its flaws.
Those people lie. Unless they don't own a TV, or unless they have it stashed in a closet, they watch. It might be one program deemed suitable of their time (i.e., the news, the weather, anything "educational") or that one guilty pleasure only a trusted confessor can be told: "You know, I can't tell anyone about this but you: I love (fill in the blank) show."
People with TVs watch something. The only thing in doubt is what.
With cable, satellite service, and the Internet, TV finds itself in an interesting time. As the means to access content proliferates and the ability to create content becomes democratized, TV producers and executives at the national level are constantly searching for the next new thing to capture eyes. Local TV affiliates dutifully carry national network content, while the "local" in their programming schedule has been whittled down to a sliver of what it once was, when locally produced shows were not limited to the news and weather (see "Part of Our Day: Local Personalities From the Golden Age of Television," and "Have You Ever Been to Carrascolendas?: Revisiting Austin's Award-Winning Bilingual TV Series").
However, a subtle shift is occurring on Austin's TV airwaves. Three relatively new TV channels have launched, each taking a local slant with a vigor that the national networks can't. Instead of seeking to be the best in the cable or national broadcast universe, they are working to be the best in town, in the state, and in the region. The three channels are the recently reorganized Public Access Community Television, Music and Entertainment Television, and the low-powered LatinAmerica Broadcasting. Here is a look at what they are and where they're at in their nascent months, but more importantly, what their existence means for local TV.
"Our industry was wireless before wireless was cool."
David K. Rehr, president and CEO, National Association of Broadcasters, Broadcasting & Cable, 75th Anniversary Special Edition
It used to be that Austin's community-access television was at the vanguard. Austin had (and continues to have) not just one, but three channels devoted to citizen-produced TV (10, 11, and 16). Fast forward to the present, and that mantle is badly tattered though not lost, if Linda Litowsky and Garry Wilkison have their way. As executive director and general manager of Public Access Community Television, formerly known as Austin Community Television and housed at the Austin Community Access Center, the pair have a mammoth job ahead of them: to revitalize the existing facility, staff, and participants, and, most importantly, to restore the vision and purpose of community-access TV.
Before PACT won the contract with the city of Austin last September, the former ACTV suffered from a severe image crisis. ACTV supporters appeared to be split between an old guard of producers unwilling to admit to or release their stranglehold, weak management, and those who recognized the larger, philosophical value of public-access TV but were unable to stop what was fast becoming a train wreck. However, the larger though voiceless contingent was probably the greater Austin public, who came to know public-access TV as that channel where all the nut jobs were found.
A big blow to public-access TV came in March of this year, when former ACTV Director John Villareal was indicted for aggregated theft from the ACTV coffer a year after he resigned. The surrounding controversy, coinciding with the regular contract-renewal period with the city, and an ongoing uproar among some ACTV producers with the board, was the chaos into which Litowsky and Wilkison both self-proclaimed Type-A personalities decided to roll up their sleeves and prepare their proposal. They won the contract over two others (including a group of existing ACTV producers). But what they confronted when they assumed management was much worse than they imagined.
"It would have been easier to start from zero," Wilkison says. "Instead, we came into a facility that was filthy, a staff whose morale was low, and equipment that was damaged, outdated, or broken."
The two had their work cut out for them. This included everything from getting the deplorably filthy facility cleaned to the more direct need of repairing and replacing equipment, reorganizing staff, reconstituting a board of directors, and finally, creating concrete producers' policies and procedures. By the time this article goes to press, the PACT board should have put the finishing touches on these documents and approved them.
"We want to bring a breath of professionalism here," Litowsky says. "We need to insist on a minimum level of standards, production values, and a sense of pride in what goes out from here. We need to regain the sense of passion of what this place really means and why it's so important."
"Just as Austin is known as the 'Live Music Capital of the World,' it's also famous for having some of the best access television programming in the country, second only to New York," says Martin Thomas, co-host of The Reel Deal, the popular movie-review show produced by Korey Coleman. Just after PACT assumed management, The Reel Deal left access TV after nine years and moved to podcasting. "With access TV, you get out of it what you put into it, and we put a a lot into it ... but, by the end, the lack of support, faulty equipment, arbitrary rules, [and] poor communication [at ACTV] got to be too much."
When asked about the possibility of The Reel Deal returning to access TV now that it's under new management, Thomas is cautious.
"We are enjoying [podcasting], but there are times we miss the studio audience and being on live TV. I don't know. If PACT were to turn things around, who knows what the future could hold for us?"
Turning things around is exactly what Litowsky and Wilkison have been doing in earnest. They've overseen four producers' forums since they took over management, and calls for volunteers to cover local events have attracted even more people than they'd hoped for. More than 30 volunteer producer and staff have joined forces to tape 10 hours of First Night Austin, which aired live for two hours on New Year's Eve. During South by Southwest, PACT opened the studio to musicians who did not make the festival roster for a showcase they called EXSE (named for the direction the PACT entrance faces). Fifty bands were featured in 30-minute sets over three days, half live, half taped. On April 29, 14 hours were devoted to spoken-word performance as part of National Poetry Month. For Cinco de Mayo, PrimeTime Tejano host Jerry Avila went live for eight hours in the main studio. A Kids Make TV camp started this month. Upcoming projects include a producers' reunion scheduled for August. From this, Litowsky would like to launch an ongoing documentary workshop and begin work on a documentary about the history of access TV.
"Public access TV was established to be the electronic soap box for the community," Wilkison says. "You find stuff here you can't find anywhere else, stuff that no one else will cover, from everyday folks, in this community."
With recent threats to free speech, First Amendment rights, and struggles over who controls the Internet and other avenues of expression, the pair says that public access TV is not only necessary but is in danger of being eliminated by ignorance of its value. In coming months, their focus will be on outreach and development, cultivating partnerships with area organizations, and continuing to bring attention to what PACT has to offer.
"I think we can do it. No one realized before that it would take two people to manage this place," Litowsky says. "Now, I'm ready for the fun stuff."
Although the "fun stuff" sounds suspiciously like more work during already long workdays, Litowsky and Wilkison appear to be looking forward to the challenge.
"In this business ... the worst thing a company can do is dig in its heels and resist change. We saw it happen in the music industry. While music executives were busy ... in court, their whole business model got overturned by teenagers."
Leslie Moonves, president and CEO, CBS, Broadcasting & Cable, 75th Anniversary Special Edition
When Music and Entertainment Television launched last October taking over channel 15, where the financially struggling Austin Music Network once broadcast the programming differences were probably minor to the casual viewer. It's what's happening behind the scenes where the difference lies.
"The monotony of national [television] programming has left no room for local or regional artists," says Jacqueline Renee, ME TV vice-president and executive producer. "Audiences are tired of prepackaged stuff that's thrust into the national spotlight. Making music and film requires a certain passion. People want to know: Where do the up-and-comers come from?"
ME TV wants to provide the answer to that question.
How audiences find new artists has changed. Web sites, blogs, chat rooms, and podcasts have had a profound impact on informing consumer habits and shaping public opinion outside of the entertainment media machine. While Hollywood isn't fond of this shift (while it tries to horn in on the action at the same time) ME TV is embracing it.
As "a prototype for regional music and entertainment networks across the country," as it has been called by Collegiate Presswire, ME TV is an antithesis to the Texas way of thinking, which says bigger is always better. Instead, the question is, how big is big enough?
"MTV is not our model," Renee says. "And how much music is really on MTV nowadays?"
Because of its brand as a vibrant music and film town, Austin was a natural choice for an ME TV launch. But it's not about preaching to the choir. Instead, Austin's ME TV is envisioned as the first hub of what could be a family of hubs. Other cities with similarly dynamic entertainment scenes Seattle, Nashville, Miami are potential ME TV sister hubs. Each hub would feature the people and artists that make each city artistically unique, broadcast that content regionally and, share content to offer a glimpse of what's happening elsewhere.
"I sometimes describe it as the weather channel for entertainment," Renee says.
It also sounds like the makings of a full-blown national entertainment channel. However, Renee says, it's the strong emphasis on local artists and culture that makes ME TV different from what is offered on traditional entertainment channels. And millions of dollars are riding on its success.
And plenty of money is riding on its success. Various sources indicate that millions of dollars have been raised to fund ME TV. "As a private company, we do not verify or release financial information," Renee says, revealing only that ME TV's main investors - Dell CTO, Kevin Kettler and Alan Luecke - "recently opened a second series of investors for local investment of the fund."
But why TV? If audiences are able to create their own forums for discovering and supporting artists, isn't TV the last place to approach these technically savvy audiences?
"The average home has two to three TVs," Renee says. "TV is an invaluable and accessible medium, and it allows you to enter into the other media as well."
Some of ME TV's current programs include: ME Live!, a live concert series featuring local artists; Texas Legends, featuring biographies of interesting people, places, and things; Austinville, a weekly series on business owners and other Austinites; Tex-Mix, Texas music and other artists passing through town; Sonido Boombox, a showcase of Latin music hosted by Paul Saucido; and Taste of Texas, a weekly series featuring places to eat and hear music. Programming changes are in store for the fall, loosely coinciding with a move to a new studio located at Congress and Live Oak.
"People want choices, they want something new, something they can see and touch," Renee says. "I like that I can see a [ME TV] feature on Antone's and know that I can drive down there if I want."
By banking on the local and making it, well, if not global, at least a day-trip away, ME TV hopes to create a platform for supporting and exposing talent that otherwise might be missed.
"As long as broadcasters remember they are obliged to serve the public interest, our country will be well-served."
Newton Minow, former FCC chairman, Broadcasting & Cable, 75th Anniversary Special Edition
When asked whether the new LAT TV was in the process of getting "must carry" status with Time Warner Cable and Grande Communications, the response was "No. Maybe. Not yet."
Having "must carry" status means that Austin cable subscribers would have access to the new LAT TV affiliate, KVAT channel 17. Presently, an A-B switcher is necessary to view the new channel (broadcasting as a "low power" station) or plugging in that TV not connected to cable and fiddling with an antenna.
On the surface, it seems like a missed opportunity for the newest member of Austin's local TV scene (it launched May 19). In reality, LAT TV identified and targeted the eyes it's looking for. Make that "ojos," because as an all-Spanish language channel, not being part of the cable menu is not necessarily an oversight.
Consider these statistics from LAT TV press materials: Of greater Austin's 1.2 million population, 28% is Latino and growing. Hispanic Magazine ranked Austin No. 1 among the "Top Ten Cities for Hispanics" to live in (August 2005). The number of Spanish speakers in Austin is estimated at 294,000, and that number is expected to grow by 55% in the next 20 years. Nine out of every 10 Austin Latinos "speak at least some Spanish." More than half of Austin Independent School District students are Hispanic.
"But," says Danny Hermosillo, "only 35% of Austin Hispanics are Time Warner subscribers." He should know. Hermosillo is LAT TV's director of Community Affairs & Public Relations for KVAT/Channel 17 in Austin and KISA/Channel 40 in San Antonio. That leaves a whopping 65% of Latinos who are presumably watching something else. If LAT TV's mission works, it will include them.
Calling LAT TV a niche network is obvious. But "Spanish language" is not its defining feature. It is also promises a strong community-service component that has, until recently, been a thing of the past.
"What good is seeing an organization's public-service announcement at 2 o'clock in the morning?" Hermosillo says. Instead, LAT TV will offer 11/2 hours per day for local issues, as well as eight "community calendar" periods, running two to five minutes in length, depending on the events of the day.
Because of the Latino community's strong family orientation, the infamous telenovelas that dominate other Spanish-language networks will air sparingly and later in the evening on LAT TV (Amor en Custodia, 10pm). Significantly, children's and educational programming (from BBC World Wide) has a healthy, three-hour berth, making it an attractive, Spanish-language alternative to commercially driven children's cartoons or late afternoon talk shows that are not particularly "family friendly."
Like ME TV, LAT TV is steeped in the local but will strive for a regional reach, linking Latino communities to one another. Unlike the two Spanish-language newspapers that launched in response to the growing immigrant population (Ahora Sí! continues, Rumbo de Austin folded), Hermosillo says launching LAT TV in Austin was not driven by that reality.
"Yes, there is an immigrant community here, but we take a broader view. Not all Latinos live in East Austin or in Los Angeles or San Antonio," he says. Because of this, the diversity of Latino populations is reflected in the variety of content (family, educational, children's, health and fitness, sports, general entertainment, and, yes, telenovelas) and where the content is drawn from (Mexico, Argentina, and Peru, to name a few).
While not in place yet, LAT TV will have a stronger production component, including a news division that will produce newscasts that are, again, strong on the local, but sharing content from other LAT TV cities: Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, Phoenix, and Mexico City.
In spite of nagging complaints from those who last saw their rabbit ears at a garage sale, Hermosillo remains upbeat.
"We want to be TV worth finding," he says.
For more information:
ME TV: www.metelevision.com
LAT TV: www.lattv.com