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Access Denied?

The City's Public Cable Station is Hanging by a Thread

By Afefe Tyehimba | Posted 10/10/2001

After 20 years of struggling to bring locally produced cable television to town, Baltimore Cable Access Corp. (BCAC) is on the brink of going belly up.

BCAC's contract with the city to provide public-access programming expired nearly a year ago, and without that municipal paycheck the nonprofit TV station has pared its operating budget to the bone. Executive director Arthur Bugg, whose own salary has been halved, says BCAC is now solidly "in the red."

During its nine-year tenure, BCAC (channel 5) has become notorious for fuzzy technical quality and amateurish programs, for broadcasts of community meetings in which audio trails off in the middle of speeches and the camera cuts off speakers' heads. But it remains one of the few broadcast outlets for grass-roots debate on government and community issues, and an open stage for local producers and aspiring artists. And, barring a new--and fast--infusion of cash, Bugg says, what may be Baltimore's only true televised public forum may be turned off by year's end.

Cable television debuted in Baltimore in 1984, when United Cable Inc. entered into a 20-year franchise agreement with the city. As part of that agreement, United Cable would fund public access, or community programming, in exchange for the rights to the city's cable market. In 1992, BCAC contracted with the city to provide that public-access service, with $1.1 million in United Cable funds to be disbursed by Baltimore City over the life of the franchise deal.

The city's cable operation has changed hands twice since then, most recently when Philadelphia-based cable behemoth Comcast Corp. took it over this summer. In its bid to corner an ever larger piece of the fiercely competitive cable market, Comcast paid $518 million to add Baltimore's 113,000 cable subscribers to its customer base. In so doing, it assumed the existing franchise agreement, which it plans to renew when that deal expires in 2004. In the meantime, the city's $1.1 million pot for public access has run dry, and Comcast has no near-term plans to fill it back up.

Nor, for that matter, does the O'Malley administration, which operates its own cable channel and blames BCAC for its current financial bind. The City Council has made sympathetic noises but says it lacks the power to bail BCAC out. Meanwhile, Bugg and his 16-member board are digging into their own pockets to keep the station's 30 programs on the air. They're the first to admit that the shoestring nature of the operation shows, but much like BCAC's program producers, they contend that shabby community programming is better than no community programming at all.

Harry Evans, whose program That Show With Those Black Guys airs on 80 cable stations nationwide and has been featured on BCAC since the mid-'90s, calls BCAC "a poor stepchild to mainstream television." But he also asserts it's "a strong independent voice in the community. And if it disappears, people should be ashamed."

BCAC officials are using similarly pointed language in their appeal to city officials for permanent funding. On Oct. 3, the City Council's Judiciary and Policy Committee, chaired by Robert Curran (D-3rd District), held a hearing on Comcast's business goals and plans to negotiate a new franchise agreement with the city. (The committee includes council member Ken Harris [D-3rd District], himself a Comcast executive.) Comcast vice president and general manager Ken Crooks promised superior customer service and strong community involvement. But BCAC board chairperson Daniel Coleman, testifying next, worried that the public-access station was being left out of the equation.

In meetings among city, Comcast, and BCAC officials, "it was left that the city didn't want to take on the single issue of funding BCAC," Coleman said. "I am deeply concerned about [BCAC] being an uninvited guest at the dinner table--or being used as a hockey puck on the floor."

BCAC was founded in 1981 by a consortium of academics and nonprofit organizations that, in anticipation of an emerging cable market, set out to provide locally produced programming by and for the public. That goal came to ostensible fruition with the 1992 contract, under which the city paid BCAC roughly $150,000 a year to provide training and production assistance to anyone who wanted to do a community-based show. To stretch those funds BCAC opened shop at Coppin State College, agreeing to let students use its facility in exchange for free studio space. But with those first years came large start-up costs, and the station was strapped for cash straight out of the gate.

"We were already behind when we started because so much of that money went toward buying equipment and [other costs] for studio operations," Bugg says. And the station is still using that equipment, now outdated and on its last legs, because it can't afford anything new, he says.

The depreciation shows. BCAC producers take six-week training courses, but their shows still look like home videos. In some cases, bad home videos: blurry fashion shows where purple looks green and willowy chiffon like stiff cotton; garbled audio that sounds like it was recorded underwater. The schedule relies heavily on filmed church services and ranting personal commentary. There isn't even a regular programming schedule.

But aging equipment may be the least of BCAC's immediate worries. Last December, the station got word from the city that funding had run out and it was on its own. Bugg cut his $40,000 salary in half and cut back the only other staffer to part time. In addition, he says, board members began reaching "regularly" into their own pockets to pay bills.

What Bugg doesn't say is why the chronically cash-poor operation hasn't been more aggressive about fund-raising. That's City Hall's beef, mayoral spokesperson Tony White says. "The premise [of the agreement with the city] was that they are basically grant-driven and would do their own fund-raising. They could apply for grants," White says. "That hasn't been done."

Bugg says he and his board are currently "looking into writing grants and finding other ways to make money," including entering into contracts with city and state agencies to provide vocational training. But he has no income projections for any of those activities--beyond estimating that what they generate won't be enough. As a result, he's still holding out for support from city government, a fairly standard arrangement for public-access stations. Among East Coast markets of 100,000-plus cable subscribers, it's not uncommon for a municipality to pitch in a small percentage of its take from the cable franchise agreement.

"We think they want to help us help ourselves," Bugg says, citing as evidence a City Council resolution passed in response to a BCAC plea for help last winter.

But like all council resolutions, it is merely an unenforceable statement of support. The measure recommends $400,000 in annual funding for BCAC but states that money "can not be provided solely from the fiscally constrained coffers of Baltimore City local government," and should also come from the private cable provider. "The problem with the resolution is that while it is the will of the council, it is the executive branch that determines whether it will or won't take effect," says the resolution's primary sponsor, Kwame Abayomi (D-6th District and until recently known as Norman Handy).

The mayor's office, under no obligation to fund BCAC beyond the terms of the 1992 contract, does appear willing to help out--a little. "We're searching for . . . a short-term funding source," White says. "We'll pull some money here and there and piecemeal it."

But after that, it's up to BCAC to plot its survival. Comcast's franchise agreement with the city has three years left, and until then Baltimore's new cable provider doesn't appear eager to deal with the issue. When City Council President Sheila Dixon asked at the Oct. 3 hearing what Comcast "plans to do about public access," Crooks said he "fully expect[s] when the renegotiation takes place, there will be something in place." As for helping BCAC out of its current bind, he said, "Not 'no.' Just not now."

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