By Michael Roberts
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Bergey, CATV's executive director, emphasizes the outlet's noble purpose. "It's a way for the public to communicate with the government and other citizens in the community," he says. "To me, that's freedom of speech at its most basic level."
In contrast, Eldridge, Boulder's deputy mayor and a member of the city council, feels that Channel 54 is generally unwatchable for reasons that have nothing to do with content. "The quality of most programs that come on isn't very good," he maintains. "Sometimes the sound is way too low or the lighting is irregular. It usually looks and sounds so poor that I don't stay around long enough to see what it is."
Factor in Boulder's present economic crunch, and it's no wonder that the $226,000 earmarked for CATV in calendar year 2003 strikes Eldridge as excessive. In his view, severely cutting this amount wouldn't constitute "an issue of free speech. It's an issue of whether we should keep funding a platform for a very small group of people" -- among them Jann Scott, a hyperkinetic troll of a personality whose bizarre take on information programming epitomizes Channel 54 in the minds of many Boulder viewers.
Scott takes umbrage at such implicit criticism -- and pretty much everything else. He dismisses Eldridge, the longtime owner of the landmark Boulder restaurant Tom's Tavern, as "Councilman Hamburger" and indicates that any attempt to pull the plug on CATV will prompt unpleasantness on an epic scale. "What's wrong with these people?" Scott bays, his hyperbole knob set at eleven. "Do they want a jihad?"
Apparently not. During an October 7 session, the Boulder City Council, including Eldridge, tentatively extended Channel 54's stipend through July 1, 2004, during the first reading of a proposed $184 million budget. Approval for this move is expected during the next council meeting, on October 21, but CATV will have to make additional compromises in order to survive long-term. Over the next several months, Bergey and a recently created committee must conduct cost-benefit studies of three plans to consolidate CATV with Boulder's municipal station, Channel 8, which specializes in broadcasts of public meetings and the like. The result will almost certainly lead to a reduction in staff, resources and programming -- and if the local economy remains in the dumper, matters could get uglier down the line.
CATV is hardly the only station of its type to experience such cutbacks. Denver Community Television has had less cash to work with each year since 2000, and Mark Bussinger, DCTV's chairman of the board, says other outlets are facing comparable challenges. "Public-access centers all over the country are looking at new models of funding, and so are we," he allows. "Because at both cable companies and cities, there's a trend toward less funding for public access nationwide."
It wasn't always so. In 1996, when CATV was born, dough was fairly plentiful, in part because of the pact between Boulder and Telecommunications Inc. (TCI), which served as the city's cable supplier. "At first," Bergey says, "the city council was getting three percent of the franchise fee, but they wanted leverage to increase that amount to five percent. To do that, they told folks who subscribed to cable that the reason the bill was going up from 3 percent to 5 percent was to pay for public access. That's how we received 2 percent funding from 1996 to 2000."
A shakeup followed, with TCI giving way to AT&T and then to Comcast, Boulder's current franchise holder. As part of this process, the cable contract was rewritten to give city representatives more leeway to use the attendant windfall however they saw fit. Jana Petersen, Boulder's executive director of administrative services, says that a "pass-through fee" producing about $130,000 per annum must be split between channels 8 and 54. Otherwise, "the revenues from Comcast go directly into the city's general fund, and they aren't dedicated to a specific function."
In 2003, convenient pools of loot like this one are in short supply. Boulder's $85 million general fund, which covers services such as the police and fire departments, libraries, and parks and recreation, faced a shortfall of approximately $14.1 million, Petersen says. Rather than recommend lopping around 20 percent from the budgets of every sector of government, she continues, Boulder City Manager Frank Bruno and councilmembers "asked departments to present reduction plans of as much as 30 percent or more. It was not a salami-slicing approach. We wanted to preserve essential services." In this spirit, the budget for the public affairs and communications division that employs Petersen was to shrink by 38 percent as opposed to 5 percent for the fire department.
Even so, the fire department's suggested cuts were painful; the posts of several wildfire specialists and two employees assigned to the rescue squad were slated to be slashed. Eldridge and fellow councilman Gordon Rigglebelieved that this blow could have been softened if the city reallocated most of CATV's funding to the firefighters. "The total would completely restore the rescue squad," Riggle says. The idea was bolstered by a 2003 random survey of Boulder voters, who were given a list of budget items and asked which should be treated as the highest priorities. Of the 800 or so individuals who responded to a mailing sent to 3,000 residents, the majority made fire protection the top choice. Channels 8 and 54 finished dead last.