Center Stage

One of Denver's least-understood media projects gets ready for its close-up.

There's no denying that the building at 2000 East Buchtel is spectacular. Located next to the equally striking Ritchie Center on the University of Denver campus, it's massive (a whopping 74,000 square feet), with a curved glass facade that allows light to spill into a circular area accurately dubbed "the great hall." A giant, beautifully stylized map of the world covers the hall's floor, but the eyes of most visitors will be drawn to an immense video tower made up of 98 individual television screens -- blank now, but not for long.

Still, the main clue to the joint's identity is a quote attributed to Granite Associates CEO Alan Gerry that's chiseled into a wall to the left of the video tower: "Born of American inventive genius. Nurtured by necessity. Embraced by a free world. Cable expanded our vision, affirming our limitless potential as human beings."

The key word in this highfalutin remark is "cable," as in the Cable Center, an institution devoted to informing people about the many facets of cable telecommunication. But according to center president and CEO Jim O'Brien, the former president of Englewood's Jones Intercable, the organization would also like to be seen as an integral part of the community -- and in this respect, it's got a considerable way to go. Although the Center plans on maintaining a relatively low profile until the second half of 2002, when it should be fully functional, the messages it's sent out thus far have been mixed. For instance, its official name until recently was the National Cable Television Center and Museum. Today, however, O'Brien repeatedly emphasizes that "it's not a museum," despite the presence in its basement of innumerable gewgaws, including an early signal amplifier built out of a coffee can -- a reminder of cable's humble beginnings.

This raises the question of what, exactly, the Cable Center is. Even many DU students don't seem too sure, but they've got a better idea than the public at large. Doyle Albee, a center publicist, recalls several of them shouting out to him, "Hey, can we get free cable?"

Don't count on it, because the Cable Center hasn't come cheaply; O'Brien predicts that the final price tag for bricks and mortar will be around $15.5 million, with an annual budget in the $3.5 million range. But the land was provided by DU, whose remarkable expansion has been largely fueled by dough from cable magnates like the late Bill Daniels, founder of Mile Hi Cablevision, and the equally late Bob Magness, who birthed Telecommunications Inc., popularly known as TCI. The property officially reverts to DU in just under 200 years -- "long after I'll have to worry about it," O'Brien says. Until then, it's a nonprofit enterprise that is affiliated with the university -- DU faculty members Dr. Ron Rizzuto and Dr. Mike Wirth are senior fellows -- but technically independent.

"All the money to build it was raised privately," O'Brien notes.

The names on that donation list are a who's who of the telecommunications industry, including Gerald Levin, CEO and chairman of AOL Time Warner, who handed over $10 million. And the center's not done with its capital campaign: A placard stuck to the base of the video tower in the great hall offers a "naming opportunity" for just $3 million. But overall, the operation appears to be exceedingly well-financed, with many of the biggest donors already having been saluted for their vision. Since 1998, the center has inducted members into its hall of fame, and a high percentage of them have been big backers such as Daniels, Magness, Levin, Gerry and center co-founder George Barco, all of whom will have a prominent spot on the "heritage walk," a sort of video timeline to be installed on a second-floor pathway overlooking the great hall.

Local cable cowboy John Malone and Ted Turner, the gazillionaire behind TBS, TNT and TCM, are in the hall of fame as well. As for this year's honorees, who will be feted November 27 at a bash in Anaheim, California, they include Adelphia Communications head John Rigas, the namesake of the center's theater, plus a raft of big wheels little known outside the industry, including ex-Scientific Atlanta chair Sid Topol, whose company manufactures "transportable earth stations" used to deliver satellite TV for cable, and USA Networks founder Kay Koplovitz.

Following the festivities, Turner has agreed to videotape a testimonial that will be preserved for posterity at the Cable Center alongside its other collections. The largest of these is the TCI archive, which juxtaposes items of intense interest to authors and historians, such as over 2,000 audiotapes and videos from board meetings and FCC proceedings, with self-proclaimed "ephemera" like mugs, caps and T-shirts.

All of this implies that the Cable Center is principally a lavish vanity project -- a monument to cable titans that they're funding themselves. But O'Brien says nothing could be further from the truth: "Our number-one mission is education. We want to teach people about the past, the present, and especially the future of cable."

The way O'Brien tells it, the roots of the Cable Center stretch back to the mid-'80s, when some of the original cable entrepreneurs realized that their business needed a place where its most treasured artifacts, documents and programming could be stored and preserved. At first it looked as if Penn State University, near the home of center co-founder Barco, would wind up with this plum, but the institution didn't have space available, opening the door for DU chancellor Daniel Ritchie, the former president of Westinghouse Broadcasting, to lure cable's kingpins to DU.

Ground was broken at the center in July 1996, and the building was close enough to completion this summer to allow O'Brien and his nineteen-person staff to move in. But while the first major Cable Center event, a meeting of its board of directors, took place on October 22, most of the technological doodads that will distinguish the facility have not yet been installed. Some of these are mainly for show, like an oversized L.E.D. map provided by the Weather Channel that will display current weather information for any spot on the globe that a user touches. But others have more overt educational components. Computer kiosks allowing users immediate access to the center's contents will be sprinkled throughout the building (sample items can be viewed on the Web at cablecenter. org), and numerous rooms have been designed for multi-camera setups and wired for uplinking or downlinking, allowing classes held at the center to be available live to students in far-flung locales.

Similar gadgetry will be employed in a "distance learning program" co-sponsored by the public-affairs network C-SPAN. Starting next year, Dr. John Splaine, who's served as C-SPAN's programming and education consultant for over a decade, will teach two fully accredited courses to DU students from Washington, D.C., where he'll have access to nationally known speakers as well as C-SPAN's field cameras and archives.

This is hardly the only example of cooperation between the Center and a major cable network. In conjunction with DU and Encore International, another Colorado-based cable service, the center developed the Chinese Executive Media Management Program, a six-week course in which media representatives from China are taught the ins and outs of western telecommunications; the program, which incorporates "field trips" during which Chinese reps meet with muckety-mucks in Los Angeles, New York City and Washington, D.C., is in its second year.

Moreover, the center is in negotiation with over forty cable purveyors to acquire their archival material. Among those who've already signed up are Home Box Office, which has come through with more than 500 hours of programming, and, strangely enough, the Christian Broadcasting Network; well-known scary person Pat Robertson recently donated CBN's archives to the center's library -- which is named for Barco -- and tossed in $500,000 to boot.

Just how many people will be interested in the early days of The 700 Club is unclear, but the library component of the Center is awfully appealing anyway. The Museum of Television and Radio, created by CBS's William Paley and based in New York City and Los Angeles, is the repository of more than fifty years' worth of often rare and frequently wonderful footage that's available for screening by students and fans alike, and the two branches regularly put on public events such as reunions of original casts from classic TV shows.

If the center winds up serving the same role when it comes to cable programming, it could become a tremendous cultural magnet in the region: Imagine how Denver would react if all of the actors from The Sopranos dropped by for a visit. O'Brien doesn't want to raise hopes too high, but he points out that the Rigas Theatre, a gorgeous 200-seater that stacks up well against the finest screening rooms in L.A., would be an awfully nice place to hold a movie premiere.

Right now, though, O'Brien isn't quite sure how the Cable Center will make its debut. No lavish grand opening has been slated, and he thinks that some of the earliest gatherings will be "cable-industry events" that may not fire the public's imagination. But O'Brien is confident the Cable Center will be around for the long haul, despite those doubters who see cable as a concept whose time may already be passing.

"Technology always evolves," he says, the great hall's video tower looming over him. "But if you compare cable to satellite, cable broadband has more capacity. It's just a better pipe -- and you'll be able to learn all about it right here."

Wake me up before youGo-Go: When I first started documenting the comings and goings of higher-ups at the entertainment biweekly Go-Go, I had no idea how much work it would turn out to be. Example: Matthew Davis, whose hiring as editor following the resignation of previous overseer Chris Magyar was cited here on October 18, is already gone, having split last week -- and publisher Sean Weaver departed at the same time.

Weaver, who also edits the Metropolitan, Metro State's principal newspaper, chose not to detail his reasons for walking, saying only that he's pursuing other opportunities. But Davis, a Metro journalism student who was at Go-Go's helm for just two full issues, proves to be more forthcoming. "What I was hired to do was to try and get the magazine away from the drunken-road-trip stories it had been doing," he says. "I was going for a higher-end demographic -- but the owners wanted to keep it aimed at the 20-to-25-year-old demographic." He adds, "I discussed with Sean what I wanted to do with the magazine, and he was right in line with it."

Previously, Go-Go was having trouble paying freelancers in a timely manner ("As the Smoke Clears," September 20), but Weaver and Davis say that money wasn't an issue in their departures, and Go-Go CEO Darlene Cypser feels the publication is on solid financial footing. She's looking for a new editor and publisher, but doubts that these jobs will be filled in time for the magazine's December 6 edition, leaving the remaining staff to cobble things together as best they can. In her words, "The rest of the team is very high-spirited. They're all doing what's necessary."

For now, anyway.

They're crafty: Believe it or not, some of the people who work for the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post have lives beyond the office. Indeed, quite a few of them produce professional-quality jewelry and crafts in their spare time and peddle their wares at pre-holiday fairs staged annually by their respective papers. But the announcement of this year's fair, the first held since the joint operating agreement between the News and the Post, unexpectedly raised the hackles of crafters at the Post, some of whom make hundreds of dollars in sales. In the past, Post participants were allowed to keep everything they earned, but an item in a Denver Newspaper Agency newsletter stated that this time around, 10 percent of proceeds would go to the DNA's employee association.

Why did the DNA decide to levy a surcharge on a craft fair, of all things? Fran Wills, speaking for the agency, says the Rocky has always subtracted 10 percent of earnings from its fair, so the DNA simply chose to impose this de facto tax on everyone. But after receiving complaints from people at the Post, the decision was rescinded, and now no one will have to share his earnings. "That just shows how responsive we are," Wills says.

In the meantime, the agency is doing some selling of its own. Several weeks ago it launched a Web site, costore.com/post-news, featuring a wacky array of items such as the "Denver Newspaper Agency Swizzle Pen," the "Denver Newspaper Agency Magnetic Clip Dispenser," the "Denver Newspaper Agency Tri-Highlighter" (they're all $1.93 apiece) and the "Denver Newspaper Agency Zippered Padfolio" ($18.48 each -- but they're extremely attractive!). And if none of that strikes your fancy, be the first on your block to own a Denver Post mousepad, available in "camping," "city," "mountain-valley" and "outdoor sport" varieties.

The DNA's Wills says these products weren't designed with retail in mind; rather, they were developed as giveaways to potential clients and were recently put online to make it easier for department heads and other employees to pick them up. But she notes that if any members of the general public want to make a purchase, that would be fine.

So place your orders now -- because nothing says "I love you" on Christmas morning like a "Denver Post Silver Post-It Note Holder."

Turn that frown upside down: Here's a window onto the decision-making policies at the Denver Post -- although the squeamish among you may want to pull down the shade.

A Post insider says that a number of weeks after the September 11 terrorist attacks, the paper's managing editor, Larry Burrough, held a meeting intended to generate new and fresh ways of covering the event's repercussions. After telling those present that there's no such thing as a bad idea, he wondered, "If you were a color, what color you would be?" -- a question even Barbara Walters might balk at posing. Then he asked for 9-11 suggestions, to which one writer responded with the following: Perhaps there is an unexplored positive side to the collapse of the World Trade Center, because some criminals were probably among the thousands of innocent people killed there.

Predictably, the vast majority of meeting attendees were dumbfounded by this notion, but none of them spoke up -- because there's no such thing as a bad idea.

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