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On December 6, when the Denver City Council's technology services committee approved the selection of Deproduction, a local nonprofit, to manage the community's public-access television channels, they granted the wish of Tony Shawcross, its executive director -- but they may not have done him any favors. With bureaucrats and representatives of Denver Public Schools and Comcast, the local cable provider, still hashing out the channels' future and new federal legislation primed to remake the telecommunication landscape, he's got the kind of task ahead of him that only a glutton for punishment would cherish. And he does.
The city wasn't exactly inundated by proposals from other groups to take over Channels 57, 58 and 59, which have been running on automatic pilot since funding to its previous operator, Denver Community Television, was canceled in September. Although Shawcross believes the last DCTV regime was well-intentioned, he acknowledges that it suffered from "a lack of organization and direction," as well as an inability to offset the diminution of dollars from Comcast with donations or other income sources. Repairing the damage caused by DCTV and finding ways to survive in a forbidding economic environment won't be pain-free, but Shawcross is confident Deproduction can do both. "We want to put the power of the media into the hands of the community," he says. "That was our mission before this was even on our radar screen, and it still is."
To fully comprehend the scope of Deproduction's challenge, some history is in order. Once upon a time, cable companies were obliged by statute to fund public, education and government, or PEG, channels as part of their franchise agreements with cities. When these requirements were dropped circa the '90s, however, money began to evaporate. While that hasn't silenced most government and education channels, public access, a far weirder beast, hasn't been as lucky -- and few viewers have stood up to defend it. Take Boulder, where respondents to a 2003 survey ranked the community's government and public-access channels as the lowest priorities in its entire budget. No wonder Boulder's city council voted in October to stop funding Community Access Television, its public-access purveyor. Beyond dealing with the complaints of folks such as Jann Scott, CATV's most visible presence, there's little political price to pay.
Nevertheless, Denver councilwoman Kathleen MacKenzie, who chairs the tech-services committee, would like to see the channels carry on "because, as Deproduction cleverly puts it, television is our main means of social communication," she says. "But what we're now asking of a public-access provider is a lot more than we used to ask. We're asking them to train community producers, provide equipment and editing facilities, and then actually show programs with no money from the city. And since they're prohibited from commercial programming, they have to figure out how to raise funds to pay for all of it."
If any group can pull off this trick, it's Deproduction, which has a history of doing a lot with a little. Aided by a dedicated corps of volunteers as well as grants and assistance from progressive media entities such as Free Speech TV, Little Voice Productions and Just Media Foundation, Shawcross and company have produced left-leaning documentaries such as Composing Dissent, about a protest against Halliburton, and cultural series like Cafe Nuba, a DCTV staple. Deproduction's alternative roots show in some of its edgier work, including "Deproduction Drive-In," in which films are publicly projected from a school bus using, among other gear, a transmitter passed along by former pirate-radio enthusiasts. (Area cops broke up a December 1 screening.) Yet the Deproductionists also partner with the P.S. 1 charter school to put television tools into the hands of kids who ordinarily wouldn't have a chance to use them.
Deproduction's original scheme called for one channel dedicated to youth and education programming, another featuring truly open access and a third spotlighting the finest efforts on each as voted for by viewers using an online system. Yet this approach was shaken by subsequent developments. Prior to Deproduction's winning approval from MacKenzie's committee, DPS was talking with various parties about grabbing one of the channels to supplement offerings on its current dial spot, Channel 22. In the meantime, Comcast approached the city about taking back one of the channels in order to increase the size of its broadcasting spectrum. John Aragon, Comcast's senior director of government affairs, explains that the company wants to add more HDTV channels to its lineup, but because such channels eat up roughly twice the megahertz of a standard analog channel, bandwidth must be expanded to make room for them. That means either converting existing analog channels to digital, which prevents anyone without digital cable from seeing them, or shutting down channels entirely, thereby potentially angering subscribers.
Channel give-backs are exceedingly rare, if not unprecedented, says Darryn Zuehlke, director of Denver's telecommunications office, which makes it difficult to know how much the city should expect in compensation from Comcast. Zuehlke crunched numbers in an attempt to determine the value of such a channel and came up with an estimate of between $360,000 and $936,000 per annum. If Comcast agreed to pay a sum anywhere along this range, Deproduction's cash worries would be dramatically diminished or eliminated entirely. Shawcross thinks Deproduction will need to raise about $300,000 a year to run the channels effectively, not counting a similar amount for capital equipment from a pool of Comcast fees set aside for that purpose.