Public access TV, beyond 'Wayne'


WAYNE'S WORLD" is Carroll Community Television's most popular program -- Not.

But it could be, if someone wanted to tape such a similarly self-absorbed, wacky production here and enough people watched it. Of course, that would assume someone's keeping track of the local-access "ratings," which don't exist.

This is the beauty, as well as the ugly side, of community-access cable TV. Potentially open to everyone, regardless of popularity.

That's a good thing, for the most part. The opportunity for anyone to produce a show or put out a public service announcement is a benefit for an open society.

It may not be exciting, and certainly not commercially viable. (One "Wayne's World" comedy sketch on Saturday Night Live probably drew more viewers than a year's worth of the real thing in Carroll County and everywhere else in the country.)

But public-access TV is an important public information outlet. Televising local meetings and hearings keeps more people informed about their government.

Soon the menu of these options for Carroll County viewers will expand, with the creation of a new Public, Education and Government Media Center and the addition of three more community-based channels.

Plus a new governing body for Carroll Community Television as an independent, nonprofit organization.

Local Channel 19 now stands alone, beaming some 60 hours a week of home-grown programs that aim to inform, educate, edify and, occasionally, entertain.

With a hefty injection of new money, courtesy of a higher franchise fee that will be paid by Prestige Cable TV (and a large start-up donation from that cable service provider), the local-access cable operation will be able to get new equipment, new production facilities and more staff assistance.

For 10 years, Carroll has had only one community-access channel, funded by a Prestige donation and whatever other funds it could scrape up. (That doesn't count Carroll Community College's station, which will also be affiliated with the new PEG Center.)

Baltimore City has just one local-access channel. But a number of Maryland counties have more local cable channels, negotiated under franchise agreements.

Often, it's a matter of pride and ambition for competing public agencies to lay claim to as many channels as possible. But it doesn't mean these channels are completely dedicated to local programming, or that the agencies responsible can keep up with the challenge.

For instance, there's a lot of channel-splitting in Baltimore County, where commercial programs or other cable programmers occupy significant time chunks on the designated local-access channels. At one time, the three community colleges in that county each had a separate cable channel; but one dropped its claim, and the other two only use their channels part-time.

Montgomery County is reportedly the national leader in number of local-access channels, with 13 allocated to government and public-access uses and a $3.5 million annual budget. But the county is concerned that resources are stretched too thin and that public access may mean public excess. Reruns and antiquated programs are all too common. So a citizen panel is examining ways to improve and trim down that surfeit of civic information.

Carroll is looking the other way, expanding its local channels and public programming.

The county commissioners just approved a $203,000 budget allocation for the new fiscal year to get the PEG Center up and running. About the same amount is pledged for the next year.

In addition, Prestige is giving a one-time grant of $800,000 for a new studio and equipment.

And the seven Carroll municipalities with Prestige Cable contracts (Manchester has a different cable provider) are making their commitments to annual funding of the system.

That's quite a dramatic transformation for the Cinderella station that's located in the basement of the Carroll Community College annex, underneath the gymnasium, with the antique cameras and editing equipment in constant need of repair.

By fall, the local-access operation will move to yet-unnamed temporary quarters in Westminster to begin its new life as the PEG Center. (The college annex will be vacated and renovated over several years, then the TV center will relocate to the first floor there.)

The reason for this sudden windfall is the county's new cable contract with Prestige, which will be taken over officially by Adelphia Communications next month. The franchise fee paid to the county (and towns) was raised from 3 percent of gross receipts to 5 percent, the federally permitted maximum.

The new agreement provides for six local cable channels. In addition to Channel 19, the community college, and the school board, there will be a channel for county government, the towns (with split access) and another community-access station.

Volunteers will continue to be the backbone of the operation. And while there are no ratings to provide the ego boosts, there is the Carroll Community Television version of the Emmy awards. Each year the annual banquet pays tribute to a variety of quality programs by volunteer producers, who proudly claim their Vollies.

Mike Burns writes editorials from The Sun's Carroll County bureau.

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