To some viewers, public access television merely serves as a distraction as they flip between NBC and ABC. To its champions, it's the "public park of the airways," the ultimate exercise of the Constitutional right to free speech.
Now, some local producers are renewing their cries that public access in New Orleans has not been answering these responsibilities.
"Public access should give a city a boost," says one New Orleans independent television producer with 12 years of experience in the industry, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "It creates careers, it creates art, all for minimal costs. It's vital for the city to support it, but since it's been limited to one entity, it's become a joke."
The "one entity" is the New Orleans Media Center, or NOMC, the nonprofit public-access television institution that has been in existence since 1996. Supporters defend NOMC as efficient and effective, saying that since its inception, the organization has raised the standards for television production in New Orleans. But some independent producers and others involved in local public access, including educational groups, contend that NOMC has too much centralized control of public access funding, programming and training -- a situation complicated by the nonprofit being couched within WVUE-TV FOX 8, a private, for-profit television station.
Recent disputes over public access have involved local education groups, including Orleans Parish Public Schools and the New Orleans Educational Telecommunications Consortium Inc. (NOETC), a nonprofit group that represents the public access interests of New Orleans colleges and universities.
In August, the Orleans Parish School Board voted to cancel broadcasts of school meetings, with officials saying they preferred to spend the $12,000 annual expense of the broadcasts elsewhere. That decision sparked a programming-control scuffle with NOMC, which argued that the school board -- which under a longstanding agreement has managed the educational channel -- should have consulted it before making such a decision.
In a letter dated Aug. 20, 2001, NOMC Board of Directors President Henry Julien wrote to Carolyn Green Ford, president of New Orleans Public Schools: "You have chosen to take the unilateral action of not broadcasting your meetings. While this is your right, the NOMC were not consulted and alternatives were not explored. Your unilateral action may cause the Media Center to take over management of the designated educational channel and put out for proposal the management of the educational channel."
Currently, the issue is at a stand-still. "I seriously doubt $12,000 is going to make or break the Orleans Parish School Board's budget of hundreds of millions," Julien says. "The school board meetings are not airing right now. We're trying to explore alternatives to do something about that because we want to provide the public access to these meetings."
But Ford says the decision was purely a financial one. "We wanted to use that money to have some additional opportunities to tutor kids in preparation for LEAP testing," she says. Ford adds that the school board plans to resume broadcasting of their meetings, possibly as early as January.
Concerns about educational programs at NOMC are nothing new. "From the beginning, public access has always been mismanaged in New Orleans," says Dr. Robert Lucas, who served as NOETC's executive director from its inception in 1988 to June 2000. "But the NOMC really hit a raw nerve when they tried to censor educational programming."
NOETC, which was created with funding from the Federal Cable Act, formerly operated with complete independence, broadcasting its own transmission and showcasing educational programs such as course lectures, on-campus guest speakers, adult continuing education programs, and specials including a Stephen Ambrose history series, says Lucas.
But NOMC began to whittle away at NOETC's autonomy, says Lucas. "NOMC soon began trying to determine what programming higher education could offer when we began working with them," he says. "They were issuing curricular mandates. ... They began viewing NOETC as part of their staff, instead of what we are -- a separate entity in public access. They began to put forth this attitude of, 'We'll pull the plug on you if you don't do what we say.'"
A final insult came, Lucas says, when NOMC switched NOETC from channel 6, in the more-viewed lower channel range, to 76, which he says led to lower exposure. Programs include tele-courses, on-campus lectures and PBS-produced educational shows.
NOETC no longer receives funding from public access dollars, and now relies instead on membership fees and services provided to outside organizations, says Lucas. He adds that NOMC control still exists because the schools within NOETC send microwave signals to the NOETC transmitter atop the downtown World Trade Center, which in turn feeds it to NOMC via satellite.
Meanwhile, NOMC Executive Director Rosalind Garrison-Washington maintains that NOMC would like to be more involved with area colleges and universities. "We are certainly making progress in that area and knocking down those walls a bit," she says.
"The old saying goes, 'If you're not being criticized, then you're not doing anything,'" says Elton Jones, WVUE's director of technical operations, the central figure for WVUE's creation of NOMC.
Indeed, supporters of NOMC say that by pumping money and technology into New Orleans' public-access television, NOMC has provided new heights in professionalism and quality of programming in public-access TV.
Public access in New Orleans dates back to 1978; it received a boost nationwide in 1984, when the Federal Cable Act gave local governments the power to collect up to 5 percent of a cable company's annual revenue for the purpose of creating a public access station, in exchange for the cable company's monopoly. The collection, though optional, is considered standard practice. In New Orleans, Cox Communications, Inc. acts as the local partner.
The Community Access Corp. (CAC) was created in New Orleans in 1984 for the purpose of overseeing public access funding and programming. Its recipients were public-access "consortia" that included NOETC; New Orleans Public Schools; Cultural Communications Inc.(CCI); and the Religious Ecumenical Access Channel (REACH).
In 1996, Cox sought to extract itself as the sole technical supporter of New Orleans' public-access television. That year, the City Council accepted proposals for control and eventually selected WVUE-TV FOX 8. Council members then established NOMC to oversee public access television. The agreement gave NOMC an annual $1 million budget and ensured NOMC would have control of public access television in New Orleans until 2011.
The agreement drew fire from NOETC, REACH and the others -- who had formerly received $25,000 annually from Cox. Their funding was eliminated, with the new agreement stipulating that NOMC would receive all Cox funding.
This move created sharp rifts in the local public-access community. Most producers declined to speak on the record for this story, citing their hope to continue working with NOMC. The best airing of their general concerns remains a presentation made by Dr. Arvindkumar Parikh to the NOMC Board of Directors on Sept. 10, 1998. Parikh, a retired Dillard professor and producer of the national award-winning public access documentary series This Is India, blasted FOX/WVUE's involvement in New Orleans public television.
"Producers who have been producing and serving the community are frustrated because they do not have any access to studios or equipment," Parikh said. "The CAC used to give grants to encourage and assist the producers. Instead, [producers] are now required to pay not only for the use of studio but also for advanced training."
Parikh could not be reached for comment for this story. In his presentation to NOMC, he suggested that the board should eliminate the membership fee, and work harder to encourage and publicize diverse programming.
Jones of WVUE insists that NOMC's doors are wide open. "We welcome everybody; to say we don't promote our program is absurd," he says. "If the entire public access system here in New Orleans were to be evaluated, by somebody that really understands the business, they would walk way amazed, even perplexed, why people aren't taking more advantage of the opportunities here."
Yet some media experts say the New Orleans version of public access television is fundamentally flawed. "I don't know of anywhere else in the country where a broadcast affiliate oversees public access," says Bunny Reidel, executive director for the Alliance for Community Media, a Washington, D.C.-based public access television watchdog group. "It's an abuse of the system to have a nonprofit within a for-profit company. ... If anybody has the capacity to interfere with information and content, it's not a pretty picture."
Jones replies that the picture is just fine -- and says that other cities are looking at NOMC as a model. "There probably are some people concerned with the relationship between WVUE and NOMC," Jones says. "I don't understand these concerns. Most of these people were part of the old access system, and appreciated things the way they were then. The deal came at a time when cities across the nation were evaluating public access programs and wondering, 'How can we make this work?' We were given the deal because we understand production, and we understand technology."
Tensions resurfaced in August, when NOMC announced it would increase its annual membership fees by $10 -- a move which prompted some producers to grumble that even the modest fee hike underscores their view that NOMC has ventured away from public access and inclusion. "The real issue with the fee increase is for people without resources who want to have a voice," says another local television producer, also speaking anonymously.
Jones acknowledges he's heard some criticism over what he calls a "nominal" fee increase. "Producers upset over the increase don't see the other half of the picture," he says. "To an untrained eye, it might seem unnecessary, but with all the equipment and work we have going on, some people thought it was necessary."
A quick tour of the New Orleans Media Center office, an annex of the WVUE-TV FOX 8 building on Jefferson Davis Parkway, reveals sleek decor and office furnishings for a 10-person staff. It includes offices, a conference room, two studios, a row of editing stations and a control room outfitted with the latest technology.
NOMC's Garrison-Washington points out various cutting-edge equipment, all purchased in the six years since the group's creation. She acknowledges criticism regarding the organization's relationship with area universities, and its connection with WVUE-TV FOX 8. She refutes some concerns and admits that some kinks have yet to be worked out.
"We offer a lot of training and economic development opportunities for any individual who would like to give their voice to the community," she says, adding that NOMC currently has 222 members. She points to this year's Summer Urban Media Workshop, which trained 10 high school youths in field production and editing. "We do have a mission to help land people a job," she says.
As far as NOMC's ties to FOX 8, Garrison-Washington says NOMC pays WVUE $93,000 a year in rent, and the city designated the space to house access in the franchise agreement. WVUE acts as NOMC's technical provider and is the only source for contracted-out services for location shoots, she says. The station acts as a tax-exempt purchasing agent for the nonprofit, helping with equipment acquisition, engineering, training assistance and production help.
Supporters of the center contend that if New Orleans wants to regain a substantial presence in the television and film industries, the city needs NOMC.
"I feel pretty good about my work with public access here in New Orleans," says Bart Everson, producer of the image-art program No Dot Rocks, and multi-media specialist at Xavier University. "The facilities are incredible, they provide top-notch services, it's the only all-digital public access station I know of.
"My show is an experimental series; it's video art televised," Everson says. "It has no commercial value, and it's not the kind of thing too many people will tune in for. Most people would ask, 'What the hell is this?' It's a show that would only exist on public access."
Which is the whole point of public access in New Orleans, says Jones. "Our mission at this point is to be an opportunity for everyone in the community," he says. "We can't please all the people. But without question, in terms of what we've done with the public access facility and accomplishing what the city sought to accomplish with public access, it's been a huge success. It's been a win-win situation."