||Corporate Takeover of Birthplace of Access Television Reaching Critical Juncture
|There is a very important meeting on Wednesday. It's a joint meeting of the Music Commission and Telecommunications Commission. September 8, at
6:30 pm, at One Texas Center, 505 Barton Springs Road, Room 325.
Here's the agenda:
Lovers of Free Speech, it is imperative that you attend this Wednesday night's meeting. It will be a joint meeting between the City's Telecommunications Commission and the Austin Music Commission. They are going to try and certify a plan to take over Access Television at this confab.
Sept 6, 2004
The horrible fate of Austin Access Television is hidden in plain view. Austin Music Partners' (AMP) senior partner is Time Warner Communications. The Access Television Board admits that Time Warner is not a friend of Access TV in Austin and wants to get rid of it.
Despite this, the Access TV Board has gone to the City Council with a proposal to take $100,000 from AMP in exchange for allowing the Board's "image enhancement" plan to merge the failed Austin Music Network (AMN) with Access Television and to have content and free-speech controls over at least two of the three access channels.
To boil it down, this is what is happening:
The City controls Channel 15, that was AMN. AMP is offering Access TV money to take AMN onto the access channels. The new Access Channel will be called EATV Network. Jonathan Clark and other Access TV Board Members openly say that they plan to take the new access channel nationwide as a new arts and education channel. To make the channel more palatable to investors and grant money, they must have the power to censor anything offensive off the channel.
Austin Access Television does not exist so Board Members can start their own cable networks. On top of this, Board Members Clark and Bowers are in business together in a company called Teach One. Teach One produces educational programming for children. Their programming has already aired on access television and their involvement in wanting to make the channel an arts and entertainment channel is a complete conflict of interest. Access Television's contract with the City states that Board Members can have no conflict of interest to sit on the Board.
We have now gotten over 160 pages of documents from an open records request from the City and we have begun legal action in State District Court to depose the Board concerning their activities.
Channel 11 generally has had religious programming on it, but anyone could submit their show to be aired on it. In the ACTV Board's own corporate minutes, they state that anyone on the channel who critiques or criticizes another religion will be removed from it.
ACTV's charter and their contract with the City states that they are not to get involved with content. The Board has said that they will pre-screen programs before they go on-air. This is what Program Directors do. The Board of ACTV are not Program Directors. Their mission has never been to get involved in the programming.
In some of the Board's now-released documents, and in meetings that we have had with them, Dell Computers has come up several times. Why, if ACTV just had more soft-edged programs, they could get money from Dell. One of the Board Members goes on to say that there could be a computer help line show sponsored by Dell. This has nothing to do with Access Television and is a classic corporate takeover.
We have found at least 50 different things that are violations of ACTV's charter, its contract with the City and its Mission Statement. And the conflict of interest issues are legion.
The President of the Board, Ron Frank, is a consultant for Time Warner. Most of the Board are involved in other Boards: Austin Lyric Opera, KLRU, Universities' Communications Departments -- and Board Members have said that these groups are going to be coming in to Access Television.
Access Television is for the citizens of Austin. It is not there to be looted by corporations and institutions. These groups are all welcome to their own shows, but that isn't enough for them. They want to throw us off of Channels 11 and 16 and scrutinize our programs.
Beware the sales pitch that this is all "for the children." This has nothing to do with children. The Austin Music Network is failed. Time Warner wants to get its hands on Channel 15, while at the same time using its shill, AMN and the "image enhancement" act to take over Access TV.
I am putting the Access Television Board, the City of Austin, Time Warner and all other parties on notice. Out of my own pocket, I have paid to begin non-monetary legal action against the Board of Access Television to simply get them under oath and discover the full scope of their activities with AMP, Time Warner and City officials.
I began these proceedings two weeks ago. Since then, the Board's own proposals to the City Council have revealed things to be worse than we had first learned from their own corporate minutes.
Step back and look at it for a minute, Time Warner controlled AMP is openly offering $100,000 to Access TV to change their format and take on AMN so they can have Channel 15. What do you call that? Time Warner has always been predatory towards Access Television and has lobbied to have it shut down.
Our legal action does not seek money. To the contrary, it has only cost me money. Our action is an elegantly prepared investigation that only seeks information, because of the past secrecy of the Board and the City.
The Board of ACTV has been arguing against the coalition of ACTV viewers and producers by saying that it is not a restriction on Free Speech to brand the channels and control the programming, when, according to their own bylaws it's a complete violation of Free Speech.
In an Austin-American Statesman article titled, "Access TV in free speech fight," the Executive Director of ACTV, John Villarreal makes our case for us by saying, "it may take changing some of the rules and regulations, and possibly our contract with the city," to carry out their reorganization. So there it is from their own mouths. If it was just the channel branding that was going on it wouldn't take changing the Charter of Access Television and the contract with the City. They're openly admitting they are going to control speech and control the channels both cardinal violations of what Access Television is.
When faced with their own corporate minutes, their emails and proposals to the City documenting this violation of Free Speech, Members of the Board say that it is their right to remake the institution.
I have now talked to founding members of ACTV and they agree with myself and our lawyers as well as ACTV's charter. Board Members are stewards of the content-neutral Free Speech platform. The minute they try and deviate from that course they should be forced to step down and a new Board of Directors elected by Access Television producers.
Earlier I said that I was putting all of these parties on notice. I hope that they will not take my legal restraint as a sign of weakness. We have not even begun to pursue the different legal avenues at our disposal.
The Board and certain City attorneys think that they can throw up a smokescreen and confuse the public in regard to our First Amendment complaint. Be advised that we have not even begun to set legal proceedings in motion that address possible non-profit corporation bylaw violations, conflicts of interest as well as available Administrative Law Court remedies and State and Federal injunctions.
The ACLU of Austin has filed a complaint with ACTV after reviewing their corporate minutes. There are rumblings of legal action from that quarter.
I will do whatever it takes within the laws of the United States and these Several States to defend the birthplace of Access Television. We are not the aggressors here, we are defending an American institution. We have been extremely lenient in our remedies, but in light of new developments it is becoming increasingly clear that certain Austin elites are hell-bent on dismantling Access Television as we know it. I'm not going to stand by and watch it happen.
Of course, my hand is out to all parties for compromise, but we will not compromise on the First Amendment and the basic nature of access television.
Myself and many other producers want the Board to publicly state that they will not control content and that they will not commercialize the channels -- another area where their public plans are in total violation with the Charter and the contract with the City.
The Executive Director of Access Television, John Villarreal and Board Member R. Lee Hill told me at a dinner meeting two weeks ago that by Mid-September Access Television producers would be issued new rules concerning the Board's control over what goes on channels 11 and 16. At that time I warned them that Access TV producers had already paid their yearly fee for the new series (that is, new shows), signed their contracts, and that on those contracts Channels 10, 11 and 16 were all offered as being available.
So there is also the issue of people paying money and signing a contract for a show and retroactively having restrictions put on them. No one was informed of this. Nothing was posted, and as of two weeks ago they were still saying that no plan was officially set in stone.
ACTV PRODUCERS ADVISORY COMMITTEE STATEMENT ON ACTV'S PLAN TO MANAGE CHANNEL 15 (DRAFT)
by Stefan Wray
FOR THE SEPT 8 JOINT MUSIC AND TELECOMMUNICATIONS COMMISSION MEETING
ACTV's plan to temporarily manage Channel 15 as an EATV channel may seem like a good idea because it keeps that channel from going “black” when AMN's contract expires at the end of September. But this plan is another step toward limiting free speech content, increasing control over programming, and expanding commercialism on ACTV's channels 10, 11, and 16 -- in short, the slow death of public access television in Austin .
Not only that, changing Channel 15 from the Austin Music Network to Education & Arts Television veers from its purpose as a music channel. The proponents of this EATV plan intend it to be a pilot for a national EATV network, also not part of the music channel mission.
The plan, approved by the ACTV Board's Operations Committee and now being codified into an official agreement by City attorney Sonny Hood, calls for ACTV to manage Channel 15 from October 1, 2004 to January 31, 2005 as “the new Education & Arts Television” channel, while the City negotiates a long-term contract for that channel with Austin Music Partners.
“The goal of EATV will be to create a semi-commercial ‘safe haven' for kids and adults within the local public access television network. All programming will be ‘G' rated and screened for content before broadcasting,” according to an EATV concept paper submitted by AMN's Louis Meyers to the City Council Telecommunications Committee on August 25.
The problem is that the EATV plan completely contradicts ACTV's 31-year-old historic mission as a non-commercial, content-neutral, free speech platform for Austin 's citizens. This EATV plan for Channel 15 conforms to what ACTV Board members, on July 22, told ACTV producers would be the EATV plan for Channel 16.
The plan now is for EATV to temporarily reside on Channel 15 and then, after the City negotiates its contract with AMP to manage Channel 15 as a regional music channel, EATV will move to one of ACTV's 3 channels, probably Channel 16.
With this channel re-organization, the ACTV Board consistently denies the new channel designations will limit free speech, while at the same time admitting that free speech programming will be confined to Channel 10, FreeTV.
The mastermind behind ACTV's channel re-organization is Jonathan Clark, a Board member since October 2003. In a July 19 email he wrote: “I have a passion for the channels and the logo designs because it was my idea to divide and brand our three channels. I brought ACTV and AMN together, ACTV and AMP together, AMP (Connie) and AMN (Louis) together, I have taken ACTV from invisible to respect in the eyes of the City Council members…”
Besides serving on the ACTV Board, Clark is a partner in Teach One Entertainment, a company that produces children's educational programming. There is a perception that Clark , as a Board member, has used that position to initiate and develop the EATV channel at ACTV in a manner that will eventually further his business interests.
Meyers' EATV material explicitly states that the long-term goal for EATV is for it to become “a nationally viable television network” with target markets in New Orleans , Memphis , Nashville , Chicago and others. Channel 15, as the Austin Music Channel, was established to be an economic driver for the Austin music scene. It was not established so that its managers could use it as a launch pad for their own national television network.
Five of the 9 members of the ACTV Producers Advisory Committee are petitioners in a legal action aimed at deposing, and subpoenaing records from, ACTV Board members specifically in regards to issues of free speech, commercialism, and conflict of interest. At the heart these producers' complaint is the “semi-commercialism” and the pre-screening of content that the EATV plan will bring to ACTV if implemented.
City Attorney Sonny Hood has performed a limited legal analysis that did not include an examination of ACTV's founding documents, such as the 1973 Articles of Incorporation, which state that the mission of ACTV “is to furnish non-profit and non-commercial community television programming.” The “semi-commercial” aspect of the EATV plan is inconsistent with ACTV's mission.
The current contract between ACTV and the City of Austin states that ACTV “shall provide…channel time to Austin residents and Time Warner Cable subscribers, without discrimination with regard to content of users' speech…” The EATV plan to pre-screen content, and thereby discriminate, is inconsistent with this contract.
These are only two examples of problems with the EATV plan. The ACTV Board's channel reorganization, and the manner in which it has behaved, has also raised issues with the Texas Nonprofit Corporation Act, Texas Open Records Act, Texas Open Meetings Act, Time Warner Franchise Agreement, ACTV Bylaws, and ACTV Rules and Procedures.
It would be prudent for the Music and Telecommunications Commission to wait and see how this legal action evolves before taking a position in favor of the EATV concept.
Regarding the long-term agreement for Austin Music Partners to manage Channel 15, there are specific provisions that mention benefits to ACTV. The agreement states that AMP will give $100,000 to ACTV as a form of monetary support. We're worried there may be strings attached if those funds go directly to ACTV from AMP. We'd prefer that ACTV receive those funds through the City, with no specific earmarked purpose.
We raise this because we've heard that a portion of this $100,000 is for Louis Meyers, presumably for salary. We think it is wrong for the AMP deal with the City to fund an ACTV salaried position for a predetermined person. If the ACTV Board decides it needs to hire someone to fill a new or existing position, there should be a fair and open hiring process. The ACTV Producers Advisory Committee would likely want to have a voice in establishing hiring criteria and be involved to some extent in the selection process.
To conclude, on its surface the ACTV plan to temporarily manage Channel 15 as an EATV channel may seem like a good idea, but it poses a serious challenge to the fundamental nature of ACTV's public access channels, and it veers from the mission of the Austin Music Channel. The Music and Telecommunications commissions should not endorse this plan, but rather should examine of the motives and interests of its chief proponents
Access TV in free speech fight
FIRST STEP IN AUSTIN ACCESS TELEVISION TAKEOVER COMPLETE