The 500-channel future of television begins at Chatfield High.
In a downstairs classroom of the Littleton school, home of the Chatfield Chargers, teacher Ron Gabbert and about twenty students in his advanced television- and radio-production class watch a just-completed program about the school wrestling team's season. Mike Jones and Rich Sheffield, who conceived the show, shift uncomfortably in their seats as the videotape plays on a nearby monitor, knowing that Gabbert will be grading them on the presentation's effectiveness. Even more daunting, they also will be judged by a potential audience of approximately 80,000 cable customers, who soon will have an opportunity to see the amateur production for themselves without leaving the comfort of their living room sofas.
In fact, Channel 55 on the Jones Intercable system serving southwestern Littleton is devoted entirely to Chatfield. Students under Gabbert's supervision produce, write, photograph and edit their own shows, which air on a rotating basis 24 hours a day. The screens of cable subscribers tuned to the frequency only go dark when the school's video players are rewinding. Stay tuned--a Chatfield Charger will be right with you.
The roots of the broadcasts can be traced to 1985, the year Chatfield was built. The school was designed with a small TV studio, and students soon began work on a program entitled "Charger Beat," which Jones aired on its public-service channel. Six years later, Jim Honiotes, general manager for Jones's Colorado systems, says the show's near-professionalism so impressed him that he offered the school its own channel. At the same time, Jones voluntarily inaugurated a project to wire all of the schools in its subscription area for cable--and to hook up both Chatfield and nearby Columbine High so students could broadcast directly onto the cable system. Chatfield and Columbine remain the only metro-area schools with broadcast capability.
Since 1992, when the hookup to Chatfield was completed, Gabbert's students have produced an average of two new programs every week. Columbine, which has to share neighboring Channel 54 with nine elementary and middle schools, has taken a more conservative tack. According to Gary Ratay, one of Columbine's two teachers of television-production classes, his students put on a live daily news broadcast seen throughout the school--and, theoretically, the community--at 8:25 a.m. Co-anchors deliver the sort of announcements that most students hear squawking out of wall speakers, and introduce interviews with athletes or teachers.
"The students would like us to be more like the Chatfield channel," Ratay concedes, "but when there are technical problems at Jones, we'll get people calling to ask what's wrong. So at least that's telling us somebody out there is watching us."
In contrast to Columbine's efforts, Chatfield-TV varies wildly in content. Students have put together documentaries on topics ranging from the amount of trash that's been piling up on the school grounds to goofy dances. And then there's "Night Sledding," which student videographer Kelly McKenzie accurately describes as "just a bunch of people sledding at night." The program "didn't have much of a point to it," agrees Gabbert.
Neither does Channel 55, according to a handful of outside viewers--including, says Gabbert, principals at neighboring elementary schools--who've called Chatfield to complain about various programs. Among the most notorious: student Eric Rangel's "Snow," a fictional story in which a teenage Good Samaritan happens upon the scene of a murder and ends up snapping the killer's neck. Gabbert defends the Rangel video, calling it "outstanding," but acknowledges that he did feel uncomfortable with a comedy in which a white student posing as a thief busts into a home and draws an Afro on a Michael Jordan poster while cracking wise in an exaggerated black accent. "I didn't see that one before it went on the air," he says. "If I had, it wouldn't have been on. Some of our kids are a little...tilted."
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Even if that's true, other local school districts still see Chatfield and Columbine as innovators. Phil Lingwood, who oversees the cable channel allotted to the Denver Public Schools by cable operator TCI, admits that DPS has underutilized its channel by comparison; the district, he says, has created a task force to suggest ways to better exploit TCI's Channel 22. Lingwood can expect little encouragement from TCI itself, however. Beyond noting that cable contracts in various metro cities mandate educational access channels, Bill Nicholas, the government-affairs manager for TCI of Colorado, expresses little interest in what actually appears on the channels themselves. "They are not controlled, operated or funded by TCI," he says. "They can put what they want on them. Since they're not ours, I don't care. This is called freedom."
Columbine and Chatfield have taken advantage of Jones's more active stance to institute another new idea. Called "American Memories," the sophisticated data bank allows students to view original treaties and other documents from the Library of Congress via Channel 59. The system--the first of its kind in the nation--is already on-line at Columbine, and is soon to be installed at Chatfield.
In the meantime, Chatfield's Gabbert has a more immediate concern: Just as Channel 55 is taking off, much of his video equipment is literally falling apart, and there's no money to replace it. "These kinds of things are considered frills," he says, "which in my opinion shows a real lack of foresight." After all, he notes, when "we get those 500 channels, we're going to have to have something to put on them.