Access TV in free speech fight
Producers challenge board over Austin Music Network plan
By Erik Rodriguez
AMERICAN-STATESMAN/September 1, 2004
Things keep getting weirder in the saga that has become the Austin Music Network.
For months, city administrators have been working on a proposal that would integrate portions of the beleaguered channel into a revamped public access system, which in turn would clear the way for a private regional music network.
At first, Austin Community Television producers, who create content for the access channels, reacted with skepticism. Now, some have gone a step further, filing a petition in state District Court in Travis County asking a judge to order ACTV board members and officials to answer questions about their plan to reorganize the system's three public access channels.
If the proposal is what they think -- the commercialization of one or more of the channels or a restriction on freedom of speech -- the group will sue, said Steve Gibbins, a lawyer for the producers. ACTV and city officials say that nothing's been decided and that the current proposal is legal.
At issue is the nature of the Austin Music Network, which ACTV and city officials hope to integrate into the public access system as early as October. Unlike the public access channels, the music network isn't classified as a public, educational or government channel and is subject to restrictions on content.
Public access stations generally have much looser restrictions, and producers fear the music network's inclusion in the mix would be counter to free speech and the noncommercial nature that ACTV represents, said Stefan Wray, one of the producers who filed the petition.
The group also disagrees with a classification system that would create a Free Speech TV, an inspirational channel and entertainment and arts channel.
"Our ultimate goal is that ACTV remain a noncommercial free speech forum for the citizens of Austin, on all three of the channels," Wray said.
Last month, producers packed several forums over the proposed changes, arguing against the concept of three rebranded channels.
During a City Council subcommittee meeting Tuesday, city officials said ACTV could integrate Austin Music Network programming as is planned and reformat the channels as it chooses.
"I don't believe dividing up the channels violates any constitutional provision or law, so long as those provisions are not used to bump someone off the air," Assistant City Attorney Sonny Hill said.
The discussion arose briefly as Council Members Raul Alvarez, Jackie Goodman and Betty Dunkerley continued negotiations on a proposal by Austin Music Partners to create a private music network in place of the Austin Music Network. The group adjourned without making a recommendation to the full council.
If Gibbins' petition grows into a lawsuit, the free speech issue could turn into a major snag in the restructuring plan.
"They may very well be seeking to overturn 20-plus years of the station's history for being free open access for producers," Gibbins said. "That was the whole purpose."
ACTV Executive Director John Villarreal stressed that the proposals are just that and that producers' free speech rights will stay intact.
"It may take changing some of the rules and regulations, and possibly our contract with the city," Villarreal said. "But they will not be prohibited from submitting their programs at all."
August 8, 2004
FIRST STEP IN AUSTIN ACCESS TELEVISION TAKEOVER COMPLETE
The corporate takeover of Austin Access Television (ACTV) continues. Thursday of last week, News 8 Austin, owned by Time Warner (which is behind Austin Music Partners, which is taking over Channel 15) reported that by this week Austin Music Network (AMN) would be merged with ACTV.
When we called City officials, they denied this and put out emails calling us "Conspiracy Theorists." In the Telecommunications meeting last wednesday the President of the ACTV Board, Mr. Frank, laid out the plans:
-Channel 16 would be commercialized
- Channel 11 would be restricted and its content controlled
-Channel 10 would in name become a "free speech channel" but in fact, programming on Channel 10 would be regulated and ACTV would have control over the shows that would air on this channel. In the Board's own words, they would be able to have more "oversight."
In essence, we're going from three access channels to one, and ACTV will have to change its non-commercial, free speech charter.
On Wednesday, August 4, 2004 the Austin-American Statesman ran the headline, "Swan Song for Austin Music Network." The sub headline stated, "proposal to incorporate troubled channel into public access system meets resistance but seems likely to pass." Overall the article was honest but for the fact that they said that only several dozen producers showed up at the telecommunications meeting. In reality at least 200 producers and citizens turned out at 3PM on a work day to defend ACTV's charter.
Remember, a week before News 8 Austin, Owned by Time Warner ran an on-the-hour report for two days stating that the upcoming week AMN would be merging with ACTV.
I called Council member Jackie Goodman's Chief Assistant and he said that claim was ridiculous. Then, on Thursday (August 5, 2004) the City Council transferred the $15,000 allocated a year ago to AMN to ACTV.
Now they claim that even though AMN is still operating out of its old building for the next two months until its contract is up, that ACTV has just taken control of the money until the end of their contract. We should all now go back to sleep and not worry about the takeover of ACTV.
So, the City Council, the media and the ACTV Board are moving steadily forward in the takeover of an access television system that was the first in the Country. When we complain they tell us to disregard what they've said on television and in the newspaper.
This government tactic is now extremely widespread. For example, there are many bills introduced in Congress to promote a national draft. Congressmen and Senators have been all over television promoting conscription. Then, politicians get on the air and say it's a "conspiracy theory" to say they're planning a draft.
It was the same thing with Patriot Act II. Months after it was officially introduced in Congress, John Ashcroft went before that same body and said that it was a conspiracy theory of those who hated America to claim there was another Patriot Act.
Six months after that he was on a nationwide tour promoting Patriot Act II.
The Austin Chronicle continued in this fine tradition in their August 5th edition. Their headline was "Access of Evil: It's a Conspiracy." The writer admitted that there was a proposal to merge AMN with ACTV and to control the content of the channels. Still, he savaged those who are saying that this is a corporate takeover. He then went on to say that it's all a great idea because he won't have to see me (Alex Jones) on the channels. This is patent doublethink straight out of 1984.
The ACTV Board have all signed contracts, or pledges that they would uphold the charter of ACTV. We now have Board members openly saying that they want to commercialize the channels and control their content. This is like the Board of Directors of an anti-cigarette smoking foundation suddenly announcing that they love Phillip Morris and think smoking three packs a day is great for you.
If the City, the ACTV Board, and corporate interests pushing this agenda don't back off and leave the birthplace of access television alone, there needs to be a class action lawsuit against the appropriate parties.
There is a national trend to shut down access television stations at a time when other forms of media have never been more consolidated. 90% of newspapers are owned by five companies, and four companies own 95% of the TV networks.
The City says that this is about bringing entertainment and music to the access channels. We have 500 channels of entertainment and music. Access television was born in Austin, Texas 31 years ago and needs to be defended now more than ever.
In the Austin Chronicle's reader's poll I have won Best TV Show in Austin. The next year it was Austin City Limits. Thousands of people have contacted me and expressed their outrage at the City's plan to co-opt free speech in Austin, Texas. If the City and Time Warner are looking for a political fight, then they just started one that they aren't going to be able to win.
Another key point is that AMN has been through dozens of scandals in its ten year history and is seen as a boondoggle. Now, for a paltry $15,000, ACTV has taken the plague-ridden victims out of the life boat that is AMN and onboard the people's magnificent First Amendment institution.
The City plans to completely kill ACTV in one year, and this is only the start. It will be very helpful to them to confuse the public by calling Access Television AMN. Then, Time Warner will get all the channels.
Swan song for Austin Music Network?
Proposal to incorporate troubled channel into public access system meets resistance but seems likely to pass.
By Erik Rodriguez
AMERICAN-STATESMAN/August 4, 2004
Like a damsel in distress, the Austin Music Network always seems to need a superhero to pull it out of harm's way.
The embattled network's present dilemma is no different. It's nearly broke, it has no funding for next year, and incorporating its programming into the city's public access cable channels isn't going as smoothly as planned.
There's also the complication of the private partnership that wants to use the network's TV space as a commercial music channel.
Today, the Austin City Council will consider advancing the network its final $15,000 payment, which it will use to operate through Sept. 30. But city officials concede that it's unlikely the station will live on as a stand-alone entity.
"I would say the Austin Music Network as we all know it will cease to exist at the end of September," General Manager Louis Meyers said.
Instead, officials with Austin Community Television are considering a restructuring plan that would include absorbing the Austin Music Network brand, its equipment and its music archives into the public access system.
They say they're confident a solution can be found despite protests from public access producers, who packed two recent city meetings to speak against the plan.
The proposal would end ongoing debates about the financial viability of the Austin Music Network, on which city leaders spent $4.8 million over the past 10 years. It would also allow the city to go into negotiations with Austin Music Partners to create a privately funded regional music channel.
The plan has the approval of City Council Member Jackie Goodman, who asked the groups to help find a compromise earlier this summer.
"She would not be unhappy with that arrangement," Jerry Rusthoven, a Goodman aide, said Wednesday.
Under the restructuring plan, ACTV would classify its three public access stations, Channels 10, 11 and 16, as a freedom of speech channel called Free TV, an inspirational channel and an education and arts programming channel.
Original programming from the former Austin Music Network would be incorporated into the three rebranded channels. The total amount of programming time that would be devoted to those programs has yet to be determined, ACTV Executive Director John Villarreal said.
That proposal came under fire in recent weeks from ACTV producers, who argued that the city shouldn't give up the Austin Music Network's Channel 15 to Austin Music Partners, a group that includes Time Warner Cable.
They also feared that the public access channels' non-commercial nature might be affected, said Stefan Wray, a documentary filmmaker who helps produce "Democracy Now" on Channel 16.
"Producers feel as if they've been left out of a process that's been ongoing for a while," Wray said. "At the same time, producers have only been given oral information about these plans."
Villarreal said producers will still have time to receive information and provide feedback on the proposal. He also noted that ACTV could not spend its own money to incorporate the music network's programming but instead would help the programs be self-sustaining.
Other ideas have surfaced, including making available a new public access channel for the Austin Music Network or keeping the network and moving it to ACTV if Austin Music Partners backs out of its plan.
But without some source of funding, the Austin Music Network has yet to prove it can survive on its own. Already, the staff has dwindled from 12 full-time employees three months ago to zero today, with interns and part-timers picking up the slack, Meyers said. The station's monthly budget, meanwhile, went from $55,000 a year ago to about $7,500 now.
Sponsorships and promotions have been difficult to maintain because of the network's unsure status, Meyers said. The network has also hosted a slew of fund-raisers, including a planned garage sale Saturday with promotional CDs, posters and other items.
"None of them deserved it," Meyers said of the layoffs. "At the same time, I'm pleased we're going to finish the contract and go out with our heads held high."
City officials now are focused on finding a way to preserve some semblance of the Austin Music Network and offering priorities for the new regional music channel, said Teresa Sansone Ferguson, chairwom- an of the Austin Music Commission.
"Whatever happens with these entities, we want the end result to be more exposure for our local music," she said.