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The Message

During a Boulder High assembly, Jim Kavanagh throws it back at the media.
Mark Manger

On April 8, Boulder High School students, supplemented by a few media members, packed the school's auditorium to see a mini-film festival and panel discussion about the school's video-production department. Before any talk could take place, however, teacher Matt Greenman introduced a Channel 4 news clip broadcast a week earlier. As the lights dimmed, anchor Kathy Walsh's face popped onto a screen that spanned the proscenium; next to her was a computer-generated illustration labeled "Video Violence." Walsh looked somber as she introduced a report by journalist Shaun Boyd, who revealed that murder-and-mayhem-filled videos made by Boulder High students aired on Channel 54, the city's public-access provider, mere weeks before the fifth anniversary of the slayings at Columbine.

A serious topic? Maybe -- but an amusing thing happened as Channel 4's item unspooled. Upon seeing goofy, unrealistic footage of a girl being stabbed, boys getting shot and one unfortunate fellow receiving a smack to the head with a golf club, the kids started laughing. Not embarrassed laughter, mind you, but full-on guffaws. A snippet of video-production teacher Jim Kavanagh declaring, "I do not condone violence," earned squeals of mirth, too. And after Boyd sniffed that instead of telling students, counselors or parents about the content of the videos, Kavanagh "put them on cable TV," the audience hooted as though Jason Biggs had just inserted his manhood into an apple pie.

Granted, Kavanagh didn't seem terribly gleeful as he took the stage a few minutes later, joining the other panelists: Greenman, a couple of Boulder High parents, a member of the school's improvement team, plus students Max Peterson and Mike Messimer, the budding filmmakers responsible for the golf-club scene. In a statement about his experiences over the past few weeks, Kavanagh pointed out that Channel 4 representatives interviewed him at 4:30 p.m. for a package set to appear at 6 p.m.; in his view, the timing suggested that Boyd and company were more interested in sensationalism than in discovering the truth. He also decried the "if-it-bleeds-it-leads mentality that obviously Channel 4 subscribes to" and took issue with what he saw as the unsophisticated implications of the Boyd story and similar pieces by the station's partner, the Rocky Mountain News, which subsequently published an editorial ripping Kavanagh. "What makes an Eric Harris or a Dylan Klebold or a Kip Kinkel is far more complicated than violence in the media," he noted.

In contrast, the way Channel 4 and the Rocky heard about the videos in the first place was quite simple. Speaking to the students, Kavanagh described the person who contacted these organizations as "a retired economist" with a longtime ax to grind with Channel 54. When he caught a glimpse of the students' efforts, Kavanagh continued, "this embittered fellow took advantage of the Columbine anniversary" to try to "bring down" Channel 54 and Boulder High's video department -- "and he's gotten the Denver media to play right into his hands."

The man in question is Michael Kennedy, age seventy. He alternately describes himself as a former business instructor at the University of Colorado, a disabled veteran, a world traveler who's worked with NASA and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a single parent whose two kids graduated from Boulder High and the director of a self-defined "think tank," the Center for Enterprise and Accountability. In this last capacity, Kennedy closely monitors Channel 54, recording hour upon hour of programming and carefully logging anything he considers to be objectionable. His press release about the Boulder High flicks displays his flair for colorful language. In a passage headlined "Three Columbine Type Shooting [sic], Murders and Bloody Gore," he fulminates about "two sinister teenagers...dressed in ominous grey metallic jumpsuits and wool caps with Uzi automatic weapons protruding from their pockets" whose slayings are memorialized by "graphic close-ups" and a "zoom on one victim's bloody crotch wound."

Kennedy's characterizations make the videos seem much more shocking and explicit than they actually are. Dawn of the Dead they're not, in large part because of the skill level of the various videographers. The movies were created by first-year video-production students assigned to create a chase scene that would feature basic rudiments of film technique: a point-of-view shot, a reaction shot, an establishing shot, clean entrances and exits and so on. Kavanagh has been using the chase project in his lessons for years, and he says that when his latest batch of students asked to employ violent imagery, he only gave them the go-ahead after they agreed to put such material in the context of a parody. The finished products didn't always make this clear, he concedes: "Sometimes the students weren't able to get their ideas across -- but it was supposed to be funny."

Of course, even professional satirists are misunderstood by a certain percentage of the populace; there are probably still folks who think "Short People," Randy Newman's musical lampoon of bigotry, was actually an attack on midgets. When it came to the Boulder High directors, Kennedy certainly didn't get the joke. "You can say this is kids' attempts at humor," he allows, "but my message is, when is murder or violence humorous or entertaining? Since when is cold-blooded murder an art form?"

 

Directors from Sam Peckinpah to Quentin Tarantino would probably be able to answer those questions, and so could Ron Howard, who made his first violent films before he was old enough to shave; clips from Howard's early lensings, complete with shootouts and blood, are included in his episode of Biography, made for A&E. Yet the specter of Columbine can't help but emotionalize such arguments. Earlier this year, the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office made public "Hitmen for Hire," a Harris-Klebold video, also made for a class project, in which the future assassins portrayed trenchcoat-clad killers. Kavanagh says he was aware of other videos made by the Columbine assassins, but not this one. Kennedy, for his part, saw the connections between "Hitmen" and the Boulder High offerings immediately, and he was equally offended by what he alleged to be "degrading" productions that portrayed young women as crime victims or prostitutes. He considers the Boulder High videos to be an example of how the city's public-access service has run amok. "I'm very concerned about obscenity and indecency on Channel 54," he says.

Channel 54 hardly needs another enemy. The station, also known as Community Access Television, has been fighting for survival, and in recent months, the struggle has intensified. Once upon a time, CATV had secure funding thanks to Boulder's cable-franchise agreement, which designated 2 percent of the fee paid to the city by its cable provider for public access. That changed in 2000, when the city council decided the sum should be poured directly into Boulder's general fund, with the exception of around $130,000 to be split between Channel 54 and Channel 8, which airs government events and the like. This switch, which current councilwoman Crystal Gray refers to as a bit of budgetary "sleight of hand," left CATV vulnerable to economic vagaries, and when tax revenues slipped, some members of the council wanted to cut off Channel 54 ("Access Ability," October 16, 2003). In March the council gave CATV a reprieve until the end of 2005, but its circumstances are much reduced. CATV executive director Andy Bergey says Channel 54 received $226,000 in 2002, but that total's been slashed by $100,000. As a result, three full-time employees and two part-timers will be out of jobs come July 1, leaving Bergey as the only staffer on salary.

There's no guarantee that things will get better in 2006. Bergey hopes more money from the agreement with the city's current cable firm, Comcast, will be reallocated to Channel 54, but Gray, who's been working with fellow councilmember Mark Ruzzin to help CATV find ways of stretching its few remaining dollars, thinks that's unlikely. "Past councils put the Comcast money into the general fund, and I think it's going to be difficult to wrestle it back out," she says.

During the past three years or so of Channel 54's travails, Kennedy has been a regular presence at city council meetings, arguing that the dough earmarked for CATV be put toward more vital services, like police and fire protection. He's also made it one of his missions to pull the plug on Channel 54's best-known personality, all-around provocateur Jann Scott, the host of Jann Scott Live, whom Kennedy dubs "Boulder's Howard Stern."

Scott probably would approve of this sobriquet, but he's pleased by little else that Kennedy has uttered about him. Demonstrating his usual gift for understatement, Scott proclaims that Kennedy is "a racist, a right-wing militia, fascist Nazi. He's dangerous. This is the kind of person who shot Alan Berg, and if he shows up around my TV show, or around me, I'll have him arrested." Indeed, Scott filed a police report on March 19, accusing Kennedy of menacing. In the document, he said Kennedy told him, "You know, I could just end this right now and shoot you" after the March 16 Boulder City Council meeting. Two nights later, the report goes on, Scott said "a male that sounded like Kennedy called Scott's show and swore at him on the air. Scott stated that he did not think it was Kennedy, but possibly a college student who was aware of the on-air feud and was pretending to be Kennedy." To Westword, Scott was less coy about the identity of this mysterious individual. "We have actors on the show all the time spoofing people, so we had someone playing the part of Michael Kennedy."

 

As for Kennedy, he angrily denies all of Scott's accusations, pointing out that he has not been charged with any crime or received a restraining order. He was so shocked by remarks made by the person pretending to be him on Scott's March 18 show that he had his attorney, Lena Ewing, phone the program to complain. Scott countered by shouting down Ewing, then flipping her the bird and telling her to "stick that up your butt!" Instead, Ewing joined Kennedy at the April 8 Boulder city council meeting to condemn Scott's behavior. Kennedy says, "I think a reasonable person hearing what she told them might infer that there's the possibility of legal action" against Scott and possibly the City of Boulder as well.

Whatever happens on that score, Kennedy promises to keep up his pressure on Boulder High's video department by sharing his views at a school-board meeting on April 13. He thinks Kavanagh should have asked him to be on the panel at the April 8 gathering at Boulder High, saying that hearing another viewpoint would have been "an educational experience" for the students. When no invitation arrived, he stopped by the school anyhow, but split after he realized the presentation was nothing but "a pep rally."

That it was. To the delight of the crowd, Kavanagh screened some of the finest films made in his class of late, none of which contained explicit violence; for instance, The Mathrix, a gloss on The Matrix, spotlighted faux kung fu action. Most showed extreme promise, in particular a technically jaw-dropping music video by director Max Nova, who will soon be bound for the film school at New York University -- one of several Kavanagh students to be accepted by the institution.

There's no telling whether student panelists Peterson and Messimer will follow Nova's lead, but their golf-club narrative, titled Don't Piss Me Off, has certainly gotten plenty of attention. At the assembly, Peterson said he and Messimer had chosen to start their film in a bathroom because it afforded "very interesting lighting," and they'd had one character urinate on another after seeing a similar scene in a Cheech & Chong movie. "It was very comical, and we thought it would make people laugh," Peterson maintained. He also griped that the Rocky had chopped up the film when placing it on the paper's website, excising everything that wasn't violent to make it seem worse than it was.

Added Messimer, "We would like an apology from Channel 4 and the Rocky Mountain News for sensationalizing something that shouldn't have been sensational in the first place."

As it turns out, Channel 4 representatives were present for at least part of the show, but they didn't take the opportunity to say they were sorry. So Peterson and Messimer had to settle for the next best thing: hundreds of their peers, roaring their approval. Michael Kennedy wouldn't have been pleased.

Weather or not: Don't they ever learn? In recent years, onetime Channel 9 stars Ron Zappolo and Jim Benemann threatened to jump to a competitor if they didn't receive big raises at contract renewal time -- and in both cases, station president Roger Ogden figuratively said, "See ya later." (Zappolo's now on Channel 31; Benemann helms Channel 4.) Déjà vu struck again on April 8. After months of fruitless negotiations, Mike Nelson, Channel 9's primary forecaster since the early '90s, left the market's number-one station in favor of a pot of money from a ratings-starved rival, Channel 7. Nelson will be on Channel 9 until his contract expires in mid-June, but he won't turn up at his new home until year's end unless the six-month no-compete clause in his contract is negotiated down.

Byron Grandy, Channel 7's news director, ballyhoos this hire, depicting Nelson as "one of the most respected meteorologists in the country. We believe his hiring underscores our commitment to strengthening our weather coverage." That comment can't bode well for current Channel 7 prognosticator Marty Coniglio, who's under contract through 2004. Grandy says he and Coniglio will be having a talk down the line.

Ogden seems relatively unconcerned about Nelson's departure. After all, Kathy Sabine, who's already accepted Channel 9's top weather job, is a rising star who's gotten national exposure via recent cameos on Today. He insists that he tried to keep Nelson in the fold, but the ultimate cost "didn't make sense to us in the context of running our business." In other words, Ogden believes Channel 9 can stay atop the Nielsen mountain without being held hostage by money-hungry talent, and so far, he's been right.

Which means that, next year at this time, Nelson will be doing his tornado dance somewhere else.


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