Montgomery seeks clearer cable picture; Panel to chart future of local programming


ROCKVILLE -- If the Fox network ran the local TV operation here, it might be billed "America's Dullest Videos."

Politicians talking to each other. Professors lecturing. An in-depth look at trash collection. Up close and personal with Jerry Pasternak.

Hours of it. Days of it. Endless reruns.

Montgomery County cable subscribers have not one, but 13 government and public access channels -- believed to be the most in the country -- wedged between 2 and 99 on their converter boxes.

It's boring, say detractors, who want fewer channels with better quality programming.

It's democracy, respond supporters, who liken giving back a channel to a cable company to handing over a park to developers.

County officials have set aside $50,000 and deputized 14 citizens and media professionals to act as TV critics and chart a future for its electronic soapbox.

Governments and civic activists across the country are experimenting with ways to give residents greater access to cable TV and the Internet: Residents of Greenburgh, N.Y., can watch the Town Council on cable and call to testify on a topic. The town supervisor estimates that eight to 10 people participate at each meeting.

By mid-2000, Santa Rosa, Calif., will have linked all government facilities by cable TV to permit employee training and teleconferencing. It has built a media center on the grounds of a high school to train residents in TV production.

Blacksburg, Va., boasts of its "electronic village," where high-speed access to the Internet is being wired into apartment buildings, and there's talk of linking that system and cable TV to the Town Council chambers for remote participation.

In Boulder, Colo., residents don't need a TV to watch "Rocky Mountain Writers" or "Atheist Alliance Presents." Channel 54 has a Web site that allows real time viewing of shows.

"We're getting ready to have an explosion in television," says Bunnie Riedel, executive director of Alliance for Community Media, a nonprofit lobbying and consulting group based in Washington.

The head of Baltimore Cable Access Corp. hopes the shock waves from that explosion reach the city's borders.

Arthur Bugg, the corporation's executive director, has one channel and a budget of $100,000, a fraction of the $3.87 million Montgomery Public Education Government (PEG) channels spend.

"It's a struggle to try and cram all the requests onto one channel. We could use one channel for religious programming alone," he says.

PEG access channels are not new. Congress, through a series of laws, urged cable companies to provide the channels, but it is up to local governments to negotiate with franchise holders what form access takes.

Montgomery's PEG channels include county government, Takoma Park, Rockville, Montgomery College, two for public schools, two for the University of Maryland and two for community programming.

"I may be viewed as a heretic, but I believe we could do without some of the channels," says David Weaver, the county's director of public information. "Trying to fill 24 hours a day, seven days a week is exceptionally difficult and expensive. Limiting the number of channels would allow us to share programming."

PEG critics point to endless repetition and poor technical quality as examples of why Montgomery might be overextended.

"People tell me they saw me on Montgomery College shows, and I haven't done them in three years," says David Brown, a member of the PEG study committee. "The quality just isn't there. Either scrap it or give it the money it needs."

It's not that the producers in Montgomery aren't trying. Lucille Harrigan, the committee chairwoman and former County Council spokeswoman, tried to jazz up the parks show by taking it on location.

"It's still a talking heads show, but at least it's talking heads in front of a bird bath," she says.

Still, the most popular show is the rush-hour traffic cameras that show the county's busiest intersections, while the PEG cult favorite is a 30-minute show shot from the front seat of a car. Its title: "View From A Car."

Critics also say programs are so boring that they can't attract a large audience. PEG channels don't show up in the ratings, so it is difficult to gauge the audience.

A poll in 1996 of 500 Montgomery cable viewers found that few were aware of the government channel. Once informed, their reaction was: "It's fine to have it. Don't make me watch it," says County Council spokesman Patrick Lacefield.

Lacefield calls PEG channels "a video freedom of information act" that gives busy residents a chance to stay informed without spending their evening at a public hearing.

Ann Sheehan, executive director of PEG pioneer Berks Community Television, based in Reading, Pa., says her two channels aren't supposed to compete with the networks.

"There's nothing at all exciting or dramatic about it," Sheehan says. "But life is not television. We're real people talking about real issues."

While viewership may be low, participation is at an all-time high.

In Baltimore, Bugg tries to find air time for shows on cooking, music, legal advice and teens on his single channel. Public service announcements -- a vital tool for more than 100 community groups -- have been squeezed to the overnights.

"How do you decide who's deserving and who isn't?" Bugg asks.

Riedel of Alliance for Community Media bristles when someone talks about giving back channels.

"I would rather have a root canal than watch a County Council meeting," she says. "But what's the alternative that someone believes should be on instead -- more Fox car crashes?"

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