On Wednesday, Baltimore will relaunch its publicly owned TV station, shifting its focus from broadcasts of government meetings to CharmTV, a showcase for city restaurants, businesses and neighborhoods. City leaders see an opportunity to counteract negative perceptions of Baltimore, but with the change come questions about significantly increased spending on an untested business model — without benefit of data to show how many people watch the station.
An extensive publicity campaign from the Mayor's Office of Cable and Communications promises a fresh slate of four locally produced prime-time programs equal in quality to those seen on the Food Network or HGTV, showcasing "all that is proud, inspiring and authentic" about Baltimore food, nightlife, neighborhoods and history. Station management hopes the shows will ultimately result in an operation that's self-sustaining, if not profitable, through the kind of "underwriting, sponsorships and donations seen at public television stations," according to General Manager Tonia Lee.
"The relaunch of Channel 25 as CharmTV will tell a positive story about many of the great things that make Baltimore a premier city," Mayor Stephanie-Rawlings Blake said in a statement to The Baltimore Sun. "We know Baltimore is a quirky, edgy and fun place, but the true heart and soul of our city is not always told. No other public access channel is being utilized to positively brand a city the same way we are preparing to do here in Baltimore. This is an opportunity to tell our story in new and exciting ways."
Though Rawling-Blake had announced in 2010 that she was going to cut $700,000 from the budget of the office that runs the station, the budget has grown by 73 percent the past two years, to $1.56 million for fiscal year 2015; taxpayers and subscribers to Comcast, which carries the station, foot the bill.
That history and the major programming changes — the format will shift from 90 percent transparency coverage of meetings and hearings to only 50 percent — raise questions among some about the purpose of government access TV and how Baltimore's channel compares nationally.
"When the mayor came in, the station was supposed to be financially self-sufficient within a year, and now they're giving it over a million dollars?" said Marta Mossburg, visiting fellow at the Maryland Public Policy Institute. "Unless they can quantify it, that makes no sense at all at a time when we're struggling to pay pensions and health insurance for city employees and retirees."
Lee says CharmTV will capture the "essence of Baltimore." At a launch party last week, speakers discussed projecting the opposite of an "uninhabitable wasteland" (as Stephen Colbert recently termed Baltimore) or "The Wire."
Lee, a former executive at Turner Broadcasting and the Weather Channel who took over as general manager of TV25 last July, has put together four programs that have already generated enthusiasm among some in city government.
The half-hour shows that will premiere Wednesday and Thursday are: "Tasty Travels," featuring events planner Kate Beck exploring the Baltimore food scene; "Born in Baltimore," a look at local businesses hosted by Baltimore actor David DeBoy; "Out & About," with veteran TV reporter Kuren Redmond checking out local trends; and "My Town," a journey through the city's neighborhoods.
Six to eight episodes of each will be made in this first cycle, and station management will then decide how to proceed on a show-by-show basis based on feedback.
Only portions of the four pilots were shown during the launch party in the channel's stylish suite of offices at Market Place, next to Power Plant Live. But a segment in "My Town" on Morgan Park, the neighborhood immediately east of Morgan State University, explored race, history, segregation and community in an informed and engaging way. A "Tasty Travels" piece featured production values on a par with those of national cable channels.
City Council Vice President Edward L. Reisinger, who represents South Baltimore, thinks such programs will attract more viewers.
"In the past, I think it was dry," Reisinger says of TV25. "They showed some of the liquor board and zoning board hearings and City Council hearings. … There was nothing to grab you."
There is support in city government for a let's-celebrate-Baltimore strategy, long a priority for Rawlings-Blake. Councilman Brandon M. Scott, who represents parts of East and Northeast Baltimore, said the new programming would be a tool to give the city more control over Baltimore's reputation.
"To me, it's a great thing," Scott says. "One of our biggest discouragers is that we let the outside world determine our image."
City Council President Bernard "Jack" Young, who has sparred with Rawlings-Blake over the channel in the past, is "encouraged" by the changes coming to CharmTV, according to his spokesman Lester Davis.
"He also understands their desire to generate a revenue stream," Davis added.
The programming does come at a cost. Baltimore's mayoral-run channel is one of the richest government-access stations in the nation, funded like those in larger cities like Houston and Chicago, according to Bunny Riedel, executive director of American Community Television, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving public, educational and government-access channels.
And analysts say that without credible data showing how many people are watching, the prospect of generating revenue is murky.
"I like the idea of them trying to diversify the programming on government-access television," says Nsenga Burton, associate professor of communication and media studies at Goucher College. "And lifestyle is a natural if you're trying to monetize with some kind of underwriting or sponsorship. But unless you have the data showing that people are actually watching the shows, you won't be able to monetize it."
Dan Joerres, president of WBAL-TV, a leader in Baltimore TV ad sales, says, "You not only need quantitative data, you need qualitative data now with all the fragmentation. Whether it is 100 or 100,000 persons watching, before someone is going to spend money on your channel, they want to know exactly who's watching."
But Lee points to prohibitive costs of Nielsen ratings data — and a plan to ultimately stream content online to reach a larger audience.
"Given where we are starting today and the convergence of technology and media," she says, "we've intentionally made a decision that we're going to go after digital."
Riedel sees potential problems of another kind with the new business model: underwriters trying to use it to buy influence with City Hall.
"I wouldn't discourage underwriting, but ... there could be a problem since the mayor's channel is strictly the mayor's channel in Baltimore," says Riedel, explaining that most cities that have a mayor's channel also have a channel for the city council as a counterbalance. "I could see where there would be a temptation to provide underwriting believing somehow that you're ingratiating yourself."
Riedel says such programs can indeed bring in more overall viewership, but going from 90 to 50 percent transparency programming should be given careful thought in terms of what the city wants out of its government-access channel.
"To a certain extent, touting your city ... is a good thing for a community, as long as we don't lose that government transparency, which is really important," Riedel says.
Lee is rebranding the station using a classic basic-cable formula: Find a handful of programs that embody the new identity you want and promote them hard, hoping they will draw attention. You then replay those shows until you can develop more like them. Think "Jon & Kate Plus 8" and the rebranding of The Learning Channel from educational programming to "Toddlers & Tiaras."
Lee says she believes CharmTV can become a model for other access channels across the country.
In fact, a similar rebranding took place last year when the D.C. Office of Cable Television relaunched its government-access channel TV16 as DCN, the District of Columbia Network, with more promotional fare.
Lonni Moffet, a Hyattsville resident and national board member of the Alliance for Community Media, characterizes that rebranding as a success, saying, "D.C. cable did a similar thing and rebranded, and they are covering more things and have shows that not just air on their channels but also on one of the local broadcast stations."
Some of DCN's programs are carried on NBC4, the NBC-owned station in Washington, and on BET (Black Entertainment Television).
DCN is exploring the possibility of underwriting, says Eric. E. Richardson, executive director of the Office of Cable Television. All its funds now come from Comcast susbcribers.
Even though Lee will not be able to tell potential underwriters how many people are watching CharmTV on Channel 25, she believes she will eventually be able to tell them how many are accessing it in social media or streaming it online at charmtv.tv. The station's revenue goal for fiscal year 2015 is $40,000, according to budget figures.
"We think our reach expands beyond that [Baltimore TV audience]. It really expands globally."
Lee has stated a relatively modest goal of 300,000 impressions by year's end on all platforms combined. By comparison, Joerres says, one commercial during one Sunday night Ravens game would produce roughly 300,000 impressions.
Councilwoman Helen Holton, who represents West Baltimore, typifies the mixture of concern and optimism that greets CharmTV. She worries that it is going to be too focused on downtown at the expense of districts like hers and is concerned with the way that TV25 has been known as "the mayor's channel."
Still, she's hoping things will get better starting Wednesday.
"I do hope that it does reach beyond just downtown." Holton said. "Representing a district that isn't near downtown, that is a concern that I hear."
But, she adds, "I am holding out before passing judgment to see if it is going to change."
Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.
CharmTV programming debuts this week on Comcast channel 25 in Baltimore.
•"My Town," on city neighborhoods: 8 p.m. Wednesday.
•"Born in Baltimore," on local businesses: 9 p.m. Wednesday
•"Tasty Travels," on the Baltimore food scene: 8 p.m. Thursday
•"Out & About," on local trends: 9 p.m. Thursday
Recent tweets from Baltimore Sun media and television critic David Zurawik: