Thursday, March 10, 2011

"We've done as much planning as we can do." -- Beth Lazer, Public Access Channel Commission

Final reports are not always "final."

"We've done as much planning as we can do," declared Beth Lazer, chair of the Public Access Channel Commission. The resulting 80-page document, two years in the making, outlines a plan for setting up a public-access channel for Asheville and Buncombe County that she called "final."

In 1998, the city designated $340,000 in start-up moneys, plus $45,000 in annual funding for the project. The Buncombe County commissioners have yet to determine how much operational funding they will approve. (The county's new 12-year franchise agreement with Charter Communications was approved on second reading at the Nov. 5 Board of Commissioners meeting.)

The commission, charged with charting a course for local public-access TV, has formed URTV Inc. and is applying for nonprofit status. Under the plan, the corporation would become the managing board for the public-access channel.

Lazer asked Council both to endorse the report and to negotiate an "interlocal agreement" with the county allowing the program to move forward.

But some Council members raised concerns about the structure of the URTV board, which would be charged with overseeing the channel. The report describes an 11-member board, only two of whom would be appointed by local government (one each by the city and the county). The other nine members would be chosen by the board itself or elected by the URTV membership. The purpose, Lazer explained, is to distance city and county officials from any liability.

"Public channels get sued quite a bit," asserted City Manager Jim Westbrook. "And they always go for the big pockets" (such as the city).

Public-access channels are vulnerable to such lawsuits because the medium is often used to air controversial opinions and tends to censor content far less than commercial stations do. The only no-noes are commercial programming and whatever the board deems "obscene."

Lazer added that, in other communities that have public-access TV, churches are often among primary users.

And distancing government from the editorial decision-making process ensures that the board "will be more concerned with community standards than political ones," Lazer explained.

Council member Brian Peterson worried that such a setup would give the URTV board too much unfettered power. "It seems like a self-perpetuating group that is not accountable," he observed. Peterson said he would like to number of board members appointed by the city and county increased to two each. "It looks a little better balanced," he said.

Lazer responded that she didn't see a problem with increasing the size of the board to 13 members.

And Dunn, while noting that he doesn't want to give the appearance that Council is controlling the board through its appointments, said he would like to see some kind of checks and balances, as well as "so much from the left, so much from the right," in order to make sure things are fair.

Lazer reiterated that the idea is to shift the liability for programming to "the lowest possible level: the people that are making it."

Council may desire to gain more control over the URTV board, even while shielding itself from possible lawsuits, but Mayor Charles Worley reminded Council that the nonprofit has procedures in place for modifying its bylaws. The board, he said, could change details such as the rules for appointing board members later on.

David McConville of the Asheville-based Black Box Studios (a local multimedia business) pointed out that the public-access station could provide training for people seeking careers in the field while making this area more attractive to multimedia companies. McConville is closely involved with the Media Arts Project, which organizes local hands-on training in the industry.

McConville has met with representatives of the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, local universities and production studios such as Blue Ridge Pictures in an effort to create a comprehensive support system for the future growth of media in Western North Carolina. Public access, he said, is a key link to increasing the industry potential.

"Multimedia has a big future here," McConville told Council. Public access, he said, could "act as an incubator for this industry and provide real-world experience for lots of folks." Lazer went so far as to envision URTV and the Media Arts Project sharing the same facility.

Endorsement of the plan will be up for vote at the Nov. 12 formal session.

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