Idiot box

DCTV Executive Director James Chefchis fears the city is turning its back on public access TV.
Mark Graham

Dallas Community Television's studios usually don't get busy until after 5 p.m., when people get off their real jobs and turn to shooting, producing, and editing Dallas' public access TV fare.

On a recent Friday evening, El Centro College student Vernon Hadnot was in one editing room, using computer graphics to stitch together his R&B music-clips show, "kind of a low-budget MTV," as he puts it.

Out in the hall, a bank of monitors showed a small group singing hymns around a little electric organ, and, on another channel, a meeting of something called Cowboys for Christ. It's all part of DCTV's heavy rotation of religious shows leavened with more arty material, such as "Turn Off Your TV," which features the rantings of a guy in a monkey mask and rainbow wig.

"It costs you 60 bucks to put on your own TV show," says Bobby Jack Pack, a 41-year-old bartender whose comedy show is currently on hiatus. The DCTV shows often look as though they cost not one penny more.

In the most technologically advanced editing room of all, DCTV video production manager Bruce Parrott was piecing together what could be the most important program in the service's 19-year history. It's a set of testimonials slated to air in the coming months as a plea to keep the studio funded and afloat -- a prospect that appears uncertain right now.

Leaders of the nonprofit corporation that runs Dallas' public access TV say city officials seem ready to cast them adrift in preliminary contract negotiations with AT&T Cable Services, whose cable-franchise agreement with the city of Dallas expires September 30 and is up for renewal.

"This company wants to make money. They are saying, 'We don't give a flip about providing public access,'" says David Molina, board president of DCTV.

Compounding his problems, city negotiators told him and DCTV Executive Director James Chefchis last week that the city's negotiating priorities do not include fighting for cable access TV, Molina says.

The city is prepared to cut loose DCTV because it wants to prevent a rate increase for basic cable service and retain all of its 5 percent franchise fee from AT&T, which brings the city about $4 million a year, Molina says. Right now, AT&T pays an additional $800,000 a year directly to DCTV to support the studio and its staff of 13 full-time employees.

But AT&T served notice to Dallas last year in a letter thick with references to court holdings and communications law that it is not required to pay more than the 5 percent franchise fee -- and will not as it negotiates to renew its franchise. "Under the Telecommunications Act of 1996, we're not going to continue to pay operating funds. Our feeling is our customers are already paying more than $4 million in franchise fees to the city. That is the maximum we must pay under the law," says Angel Biasatti, an AT&T regional spokeswoman.

Eric Kaalund, the city comptroller and head of its negotiating team, says the city's position has been that "we want [public] access TV and educational TV to remain."

But he refused to be more specific about the negotiations or whether the city will insist on a deal that includes the $800,000 in DCTV operating money. "I can't divulge what has been our negotiating position," Kaalund says. "The results of those will go first to the city manager, then the council."

As for the claim that operating monies aren't a city priority, Kaalund says, "You are correct that that is their [Molina's and Chefchis'] opinion. They have expressed concern whether DCTV will be funded at the same level."

Rather than face cuts, DCTV has asked that its funding be increased to $1.2 million. Molina describes the situation as a "David and Goliath story. A corporate giant coming in to swallow up" a small grassroots outfit. "We cost each subscriber just 36 cents a month," Molina says, adding that he doubts the savings will end up in people's bills if the new franchise agreement pulls the plug on DCTV.

Molina says he believes AT&T wants to ditch its obligation to provide DCTV's operating funds in order to set a precedent as it enters into negotiations around the country. Sue Buske, a Sacramento-based consultant who works with cable access companies during franchise negotiations, says Dallas can still insist that the operating funds be included in its contract with AT&T. "It's a landlord-tenant relationship," she says. "The city can ask for something in return for allowing the company to do business on its property." She says AT&T's position is simple: It wants to cut the best possible deal for itself.

The DCTV studio fills five channels with arts performances, community news, bulletin boards, and public meetings. Other public channels are filled directly by the Dallas and Richardson school districts and Dallas County community colleges.

Because of intense competition among cable providers when Dallas' franchise was first awarded in 1981, public access TV in Dallas started out fat and happy. "We had great community backing and the support of some very energetic people," Chefchis says. The cable company at the time, Warner Amex, eventually found it too expensive and time-consuming to maintain the public access studio, so it reached a new arrangement with the city in 1987. Dallas formed a nonprofit corporation governed by a board of mostly city council appointees, and the franchise paid to operate it.

The arrangement removed the city from any knotty First Amendment battles, although there have been fewer free-expression battles in Dallas over public access TV than elsewhere. One must become a member of the nonprofit DCTV organization to air programs, and the membership rules include a long list of taste and language restrictions as well as a $60 fee.

The advantage of the 1987 arrangement to DCTV in bureaucratic terms has been tremendous, Molina says. Rather than fighting for a share of the city budget, the operation has enjoyed 13 years of steady funding. And it shows. Housed in a wholly owned building in an industrial park off Stemmons Freeway, DCTV has two full studios, a mobile studio in a van, and a roomful of monitors and cameras -- including state-of-the-art digital models -- that can be checked out, as well as editing rooms, a classroom, and its own for-profit production facility. Community groups can either learn how to produce their own TV spots or hire DCTV to do it for them.

Buske, the consultant, describes Dallas' operation as "well-funded but not a Cadillac."

All of this is now a plump target for AT&T, which acquired TCI Cable last year and now appears to be trying to get as lean as possible in the highly competitive cable-Internet access universe.

Molina says there are obvious problems for DCTV if it ends up fighting for its operating funds out of the $4 million AT&T pays the city in franchise fees. That money goes into the city's general fund. "Our fear is that cable access is gonna go out the window. It isn't a needed service like fire or police pay," Molina says.

He says the city has given no priority to its own cable access facilities. "It used to have a studio in the basement of the [downtown] library. They closed that. All they do is air the city council meetings."

Ultimately, one of those meetings will decide what the city gets in a new franchise contract.

"A lot of what happens in these renewals has to do with the kind of political and community support access has," Buske says.

And to that end, Molina and company are already looking beyond the city bureaucrats to council members and people who apply pressure to the council. They've hired a PR man, Greg Graze, to help rally that support. "Cable access is used by neighborhood groups, arts groups, businesses; it cuts across everyone," Graze says. "It would be foolhardy for the council to take a laissez-faire attitude."

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