"I'm very positive about DCTV carrying on," declares Paul Fiorino, a producer and liaison to the board of directors at Denver Community Television, the embattled nonprofit that runs the city's community-access channels. "We have all the resources we need to make great things happen. Now we just need the money."
Unfortunately for Fiorino and other DCTV boosters, cash is in short supply, and so is time to find more. In the past, fiscal backing for DCTV came from whichever cable company held the franchise agreement with the city at any given time, but most of that windfall ended when 2004 did. Denver's city council tossed some taxpayer dollars DCTV's way in 2005, giving it a chance to line up new funding sources. That hasn't happened, though, and councilmembers demonstrated their frustration on August 16 when they requested proposals from other organizations interested in managing the stations -- most notably, channels 57 and 58. But rather than attempt to rally support at this critical moment, as Fiorino is doing, several of DCTV's overseers are either hiding or splitting while the splitting is good.
Take Dr. Agnes Martin, DCTV's executive director, who acts as if she studied public relations at the University of Colorado. After a half-dozen messages from Westword over a period of several days, she finally responded with an e-mail that stated, "I have no comment at this time. Sorry." A request for contact information regarding members of DCTV's board of directors was slapped down just as firmly. Martin's administrative assistant said she wasn't authorized to give journalists phone numbers, e-mail addresses, or even the names of those on the board -- an indefensible policy, particularly for an outfit with the word "community" in its moniker.
Darryn Zuehlke, who directs the city's telecommunications office and is a non-voting member of DCTV's board, was more forthcoming: He says the boardmember info sheet that DCTV gave to the city is a public document. But of the three boarders who responded to calls from yours truly, just one, Joel Rosenstein, is still a member of the panel, which usually consists of six or seven people. Herman Malone resigned his position in mid-August. "I didn't have the time to devote to the organization that I would have liked," he says. As for John McBride, the board's onetime head, he turned in his resignation on August 22. He's reluctant to offer details about his choice, noting that "I was the interim chairperson. It was just time." Nevertheless, he grants that a comment he made in a June 16 Rocky Mountain News article about not wanting the city's money "got me in hot water."
DCTV, which has been managing the access channels since 1990, is apt to be scalded soon, too. The city council's technology committee is slated to meet on September 6, and a key member, District 8 councilwoman Elbra Wedgeworth, who was once among DCTV's biggest supporters, sounds fed up. "We could terminate their contract at any time for various issues," she says. "One of those is financial stability, and based on that, it might be best to terminate their contract then."
According to Assistant City Attorney David Broadwell, it's actually Zuehlke who has the power to formally sever the relationship between the city and DCTV. Even if the committee urges him to do so, however, he says he wouldn't feel comfortable taking such a step without talking the decision over with every councilmember, either during informal one-on-one chats or at their next scheduled gathering, on September 12. Wedgeworth doubts that many of her colleagues will be in DCTV's corner. "If you can pay to have DCTV or hire more police officers on the street, that's not going to be a tough decision for people," she says.
DCTV's dilemma has been more than two decades in the making. In 1984, Mile Hi Cablevision inked a fifteen-year agreement to supply cable service to Denver, and as part of that pact, the firm agreed to create eight public, education and government -- or PEG -- access channels. In the years that followed, the franchise has skipped around. Mile Hi was purchased by TCI Inc. in 1993; six years later, in 1999, TCI merged with AT&T to form AT&T Broadband, which signed a new franchise pact with Denver in 1999 before being subsumed by Comcast in 2002. The 1999 document differed from its predecessor in that the franchise holder was required only to fund "capital equipment" over the length of the contract, which expires on the last day of 2009. As for its commitment to operating expenses, it diminished from around $500,000 per annum to $170,000 in 2004, then vanished entirely.
None of this was a secret. A 1999 city-issued "request for proposals" to run the access channels points out that "by Year Five [of the contract], fundraising efforts will need to support operational expenses on an annual basis." But with the deadline for the money cutoff nearing, DCTV failed to attract any well-heeled angels. As a stopgap, DCTV boardmembers such as Rosenstein hoped to use some of the dollars set aside for equipment to fund general operations. These so-called PEG fees continue to roll in; they cost subscribers about 87 cents a month, contributing to a financial pool Zuehlke estimates at $400,000. DCTV would love to get ahold of this dough, but Zuehlke says a provision of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 prevents it from being used to cover operations.
With no solution in sight, Denver's city council came through with $115,000 to cover salaries and so on for 2005, but Wedgeworth doesn't feel that DCTV types have stretched this sum as far as they should. "We said, 'You need to severely reduce your staff,' and they did reduce it, from thirteen to seven," she allows. "But we'd told them, 'You need to reduce it to two or three, because you don't have the money.'"
Tony Palange, a producer and playwright who has aired productions on DCTV for many years, says the tight budget has had other negative effects. "I was shocked at how the facilities had deteriorated," he maintains. "The cameras were literally falling apart. My camera people had to actually hold pieces of the camera together during the taping." Palange thinks the conditions may be keeping some producers away, and whether that's a factor or not, a sizable percentage of DCTV's slate is filled with syndicated offerings submitted by assorted secular and religious organizations instead of shows created locally.
Even so, Denver has a strong incentive to keep operating channels 57 and 58;another little-known clause in the franchise agreement allows Comcast to ask for the return of any "underutilized" channels at no cost. The contract also lets the city demand the return of such channels once it comes up with something new to do with them, and John Aragon, Comcast's senior director of government affairs, believes such switching could cause problems. "If we took a station back and offered it to some other network, subscribers might like it," he says. "If the city then wanted it back, we'd have irate customers." Still, the prospect of getting the channels for nothing helps explain why Comcast didn't bite when Zuehlke explored the option of selling them to the company.
A group Zuehlke describes as "a nonprofit with educational ties" has shown some interest in taking over management of the access channels, and he emphasizes that DCTV can apply to run things as well. Boardmember Rosenstein sees DCTV as the best choice. He says he and other DCTV associates recently met with affiliates of several arts groups in the city, as well as with officials such as Mayor John Hickenlooper, and he thinks that "together we can create something of community value that will be embraced by mainstream Denver."
Translating such ambitions into negotiable currency is another matter. In July, DCTV staged an awards banquet and benefit, and prior to the big day, producer Fiorino speculated that the event would raise "$50,000 at a minimum." Afterward, he conceded that the bash generated just $10,000 before expenses, but described it as a big success from a community-building standpoint. In his opinion, the atmosphere only underlined DCTV's value. "We've got to make sure it survives on the dial," he says, "because DCTV is for you and for me."
Maybe so -- but right now, his voice sounds very lonely.
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