A Rocky Road to Recovery
The lights are still on at ME TV, but is it a new dawn?
When Marcus Sillers decided to propose to Jasmine Hamamcy, it didn't take long for him to decide when and where to do it. Sillers, a Fort Worth native, is a longtime music lover, and the "live music capital" provided an important soundtrack to his courtship with Hamamcy. Although she is the Austinite, Sillers says that he was the one to bring Austin's music scene into their world.
"A lot of our relationship took place here on Congress Avenue," he says. First Thursdays, catching bands at the Continental Club and other venues, and, he says with fondness, watching ME TV, the Music & Entertainment Television studio housed in the former-movie-theatre-turned-TV-studio on South Congress and West Live Oak.
"I would watch it all the time to see what was happening," Sillers said. "Jasmine was not into music as much as me. I was the one who brought that into our relationship. Eventually, we watched ME TV together to hear about bands and then go check them out," he added. So when Sillers worked up the nerve to propose, he contacted ME TV, got it to post his big question on the studio's marquee facing Congress ("Jasmine, will you marry me?"), and carefully planned it so that they would be walking by at just the right moment.
"It just made sense to me," Sillers said by phone a few days after the very public proposal took place. "Symbolically, ME means a lot to me," he said, "I mean, with the whole music connection and being on Congress and everything. I thought about the Paramount [which also has a marquee], but with ACL starting the next day I thought it would be easier to get ME TV than the Paramount, and like I said, there's the symbolism of it."
Getting the ME TV marquee the day before one of the city's major music festivals may have been a great addition to Sillers and Hamamcy's love story, but it could be seen as an oblique reflection on the condition of ME TV: bright on the outside, charged with anticipation, but, like love, largely inscrutable.
Launched four years ago this month, ME TV took over Channel 15, where the former Austin Music Network once aired. At the time, it was trumpeted as the answer to the city's desire to have a high-caliber, 24-hour channel dedicated to promoting Austin-oriented music and culture, serving as a prototype for what a regionally focused music and entertainment network could look like and operating in the black (the bane of AMN). Four years later, ME TV has fallen into what can politely be described as trying times. The mass layoff of nearly its entire staff last year was unceremoniously announced in one bitter post on The Austin Chronicle's website by a person who identified him- or herself as then-ME TV CEO Connie Wodlinger (it wasn't her). An official notice was subsequently sent, but not before rumors hit the street that final payroll was not paid – a poorly kept secret that spread like wildfire before the news that those who were kept waiting did indeed receive final compensation.
Onscreen, it almost looked like business as usual. The screen on cable Channel 15 did not go black – that would have been in violation of the Austin Music Partners' agreement with the city. (AMP governs and does business as ME TV.) Music videos and other previously aired ME TV shows were shown, along with a crawl of current club listings. No, the only visible evidence of the shake-up was the parking lot south of the building, barren except for the lone ME TV van, with the winking invitation, "Turn ME on!" scripted on its side in cheery letters.
So who was running ME TV? One imagined a lonely techie in a control booth, eating a packed lunch while pushing buttons intermittently to make sure content appeared on the air, like the poor sucker Desmond on Lost, who had to enter code into a computer at discretely timed moments to avoid the destruction of the world. But unraveling the multifaceted Lost is a lot easier (and more fun) than finding out what was happening at ME TV. At the time, former staffers either refused to talk or did so strictly off the record, and all official comments only offered upbeat bromides about the value of ME TV, why it should (and would) continue, and that things would be back to normal soon.
The resignation of Wodlinger as the ME TV CEO in August of this year finally brought some movement in the story, but as the dust has settled and ME TV has begun to show some new life with the rehire of some of its former on-air staff (including Paul Saucido of Sonido Boombox) and the appointment of Kevin Kettler as ME TV's interim CEO, the only thing that's clear about ME TV is that there is no shortage of hope.
Kettler just may be the best match for the station in this transitional period. A former chief technology officer for Dell and an Austin Music Partners investor, Kettler is a glass-half-full kind of guy.
"There are lots of opinions about us," he said in an interview in his office in the ME TV building. Instead of focusing on the eyebrow-raising occurrences of the past, he prefers to look at ME TV's accomplishments.
"We've built up a great base and are ready to take it to the next level," said Kettler. "We have 6,000 hours of programming. We have the infrastructure to do production services. The creative juices are flowing, here and in the Austin community. It's time to take the processes we've developed and move forward."
If that sounds like a cloud of benign hot air, one might be encouraged by some of the more bread and butter changes at the studio. In addition to hiring a small staff, ME TV has taken on two roommates in its highly visible South Austin building. WOXY, one of the nation's vanguard rock stations turned Internet-only broadcast, relocated to Austin from Ohio in September. The other roomie is Austin.com, one of several local websites dedicated to promoting what's happening in Austin. The addition of boarders to help cover general overhead costs of the building buys Kettler and his team time to reconstitute their plan for ME TV, something that the agreement with the city expressly requires when changes occur, according to its 2004 agreement with the city.
"The city was notified by Connie prior to her departure that she was leaving and that I would be replacing her," Kettler confirmed in an e-mail on Oct. 7. "The plan at that time was business as usual, so there was not a new plan submitted at that time. Over the last six weeks, I have been putting in place a new business model for the company. I have spoken with the city ... and we agree that a new plan should be submitted. We set a target for the next 7-10 days to put pen to paper and submit a new plan."
Kettler did not share what those plans might be – understandably, if aggravatingly – and simply said that he had been entertaining visitors who have come to share their vision for ME TV. What would the most perfect experience be for the TV viewer who happens upon Channel 15? Outside of Kettler's office, opinions vary from the deeply pessimistic ("shut it down") to more best-foot-forward, with hope expressed that ME TV could become a leader in blending the typically passive TV experience with the real-time, experiential elements of online social media.
Kettler is correct: Everyone – particularly those who have had direct experience with ME TV – has an opinion about what has happened and could happen with the channel. That no one wants to talk on record could be good diplomacy, but even with disappointment still fresh, the overwhelming sense is still optimism. Guarded optimism. No one wants to burn any bridges, especially not when the desire for something good (and profitable) is still considered high.
Fans and critics alike will be watching ME TV in the coming weeks. However, Sillers and Hamamcy won't be cozying up on the sofa to watch ME TV anytime soon. She said "yes," and the happy couple has a wedding to plan. Besides, Sillers explains, "I dropped Time Warner and got U-verse." Only cable subscribers can watch ME TV.
As for the struggling station, it remains to be seen if its story ends in happily ever after.