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Two local, independent arts programs are reinventing prime-time television in New Orleans

It's a stormy Sunday afternoon in early October, and while NFL games dominate the network television schedule, Aaron Rushin is focused on a different program. Rushin, a film equipment and computer technician for the University of New Orleans, is at work in his home studio on Annunciation Street, hunched over the keyboard of a hulking Apple Power Mac G5 that takes up half his desk, methodically dragging and dropping digitized clips into a growing Final Cut Pro timeline.

For the past five-and-a-half years, Rushin, 37, has served as the producer and primary editor of Timecode: NOLA, an independent, nonprofit program he founded along with friends and fellow filmmakers Randy Perez and Larron "Rome" Julian in January 2003. The show, which airs new episodes monthly and reruns three times weekly on Cox Cable's local channel 10, is an hourlong assemblage of area and national visual art, from animated shorts to longer narratives and everything in between.

"This is where the bumpers go," he says, pointing to original transitions that will act as buffers between the short films he's piecing together. One such bumper features a humorous street scene in what looks like Havana — two locals, both smiling broadly, one sporting a familiar New Orleans T-shirt. As the camera zooms in on the logo on his chest, the man recites his lone line in broken English: "Timecode: NOLA. You heard me?"

Rushin, perhaps sensing the need for an explanation, obliges. "My friend went to Cuba," he shrugs.

Nowhere is the range of content more apparent than in the episode currently at hand. It's the premiere of Timecode's fifth season — the series' 41st entry, set to debut Thursday, Oct. 16, at 7:30 p.m. — and it includes contributions from film freaks Terror Optics, the second segment of a three-part Hurricane Katrina documentary (Tim Ryan's The Drive) and something called Of Mouse and Marine, which Rushin describes thusly: "It's stupid. These two guys chase a mouse around their house. My friend from UNO gave it to me. I thought it was kind of funny."

Lengths of the films, most of which are unsolicited submissions, can be equally varied. "There are things that are just 20 seconds," Rushin says. "I won't show anything over half an hour. It just dominates the program."

The Drive is a special exception. At the request of the filmmaker Ryan, former executive director of the New Orleans Video Access Center (NOVAC), Rushin agreed to air the documentary in series. Ryan had structured his film as a triptych of 20-minute panels, each surveying a different neighborhood devastated by the levee failures. Part one, which begins in the Lower Ninth Ward, closed Timecode's fourth season; part two, on Lakeview, opens season five.

"I'd been a fan of the show for years," Ryan says, "and we had just finished the one-hour program — I had released it (on YouTube) in segments. For a while it was the highest-viewed Katrina-related video, millions of views, until Green Day and the Saints' opening game. But this is the nonInternet premiere."

Although Cox 10 counts its audience with three digits rather than seven, Rushin believes the local channel, whose regular lineup includes long-running shows like the hip-hop spotlight Phat Phat "n' All That (founded in 1998) and relative newcomers such as the indie-rock scene survey Static Television (celebrating its second anniversary this month), is a unique asset for the New Orleans arts community. He also corrects those who would confuse the shows' shoestring budgets with the commonly held belief that the station is public access. (Cox does offer public access on channel 77.)

"Everybody says that, but it's not access," Rushin says. "It shortchanges what we do, because with access, anybody can have a show. Here, there's a gatekeeper. Nobody in the community knows. They all think I have a show on access."

Completing the circle, Ryan says several of those gatekeepers attended film classes while the former was head of NOVAC. "We became an Apple-authorized training center, and I helped round up workshops," he says. "A few of [the station's] employees have taken workshops, just to get up to speed on Final Cut Pro editing and stuff.

"I think it's great that Cox 10 allows people who have a decent program to produce it and distribute it," Ryan adds. "I don't know how many people [Timecode] reaches, but I know folks within the independent filmmaking community watch it. And a lot of people who aren't filmmakers watch it, too. It's entertainment."

If the corporate entity known as Music Television still contained music programming, it might look today something like Static Television. The independent program — which, like Timecode, airs new episodes monthly on Cox 10 and reruns twice weekly — screens music videos by national and local recording artists interlaced with candid, on-camera interviews in venue green rooms or cramped Fountainbleu practice spaces.

"If you want to be considered part of the national scene, I feel like you have to incorporate these national artists," says Wesley Swinnen, founder of Static and a freelance television producer, who also has worked with Rushin both on Timecode and at Cox 10. "[Viewers] recognize bands that we put on there, say, Architecture in Helsinki or TV on the Radio. If they see these bands, and then right after there's (local band) Rotary Downs, that juxtaposition builds them up to a level that I feel they should be at anyway."

True to form, Swinnen is arranging an Austin City Limits showcase for Static's next episode, debuting Tuesday, Oct. 14, at 10 p.m. Every artist featured on the show will have played at the September music festival, including the Octopus Project, Jamie Lidell and the Strange Boys, a New Orleans product and recent Texas transplant.

"I'm excited about that because I wanted to stress Austin's [indie-rock] scene and compare it to ours," Swinnen says of the motif. "I also promote shows, and every time I go into them, I have no idea who's going to show up. I could have 500 people on MySpace say they're going to come and 10 people show up. And vice versa. This scene is so finicky, it's unbelievable. This season, my goal for every episode is to have a local band. A national artist and a local band. That's always been my goal."

Swinnen's history with Cox 10 dates back to contract jobs he performed along with Rushin, Perez and Julian — camerawork, spot production help and such. That relationship led to a part-time gig assisting on the production of their show, which led to the launch of his own program in late 2006. Static opened its third season in September.

"I really try to be an outlet for these artists," Swinnen says. "And I know Timecode [does] as well, because they put on anything. They're pretty great about that. They have that stance where, if a producer or young filmmaker saw it, they would go, "I can do that.' And it gives them the encouragement to do it."

Swinnen points to Phat Phat "n' All That as the progenitor for his show's platform. "What [it] did was create an infrastructure to allow for stuff like Cash Money Records and No Limit," he says. "These young artists were like, "If I make a video, I can get on Phat Phat.' So they created videos, and that also gave them the opportunity to get on MTV. It gave people encouragement that, if nothing else, [they] can get [themselves] out there a little bit. And I hope that I'm providing that as well. I can definitely tell that more music videos are being made here. I like to believe we're one of the reasons."

The music video is Static's creative currency, and after a lengthy period of considerable devaluation — many artists stopped making them altogether in the last decade, and MTV only recently started airing them again — its stock seems to be back on the rise. In one regional example, a homemade clip of Theresa Andersson multi-tracking her song "Na Na Na" in her kitchen sparked a YouTube firestorm, the viral video tallying more than half a million hits within weeks of its posting. Swinnen has an interview scheduled with Andersson for a forthcoming Static episode.

"It's still something that is debated, whether [videos] are actually coming back," he says. "I think it's getting a push right now. People said, "Oh, the music video's dead.' No, it's just cheaper now. Budgets for videos have dropped considerably — unless you're Kanye West, who can afford Spike Jonze. Timecode is doing the same thing in film. And a lot of that is done on the cheap, especially these independent filmmakers with a camera just going out and telling a story. Musicians are doing the same thing with their music videos."

As for actual currency, it's something with which both shows struggle on a monthly basis; both are funded largely out of their founders' bank accounts. Timecode gets help from its 501(c)(3) tax status, which allows for the deduction of any monetary awards. More important, Rushin says, it allows Cox 10 to profit from its airtime.

"All of the hours that we're on, they deduct as a donation," he explains. "So that's tens of thousands of dollars a month just by airing. That keeps us on Cox."

Other sources of money include community arts grants ($2,000 annually) and centralized funding through the New Orleans Arts Council (a maximum of $10,000 each year, although Rushin says he typically receives between $3,000 and $5,000). While appreciated, the amount is a fraction of both shows' annual budgets.

"I work hard, and I lose money on it every single year," Swinnen says. "It's just something that I really enjoy doing. It's so exciting to hear about New Orleans musicians really starting to get national recognition."

For Rushin, it's archived moments like Timecode's conversation with friend and animator Helen Hill — her only industry interview, he says, before her murder in early 2007 — that make the financial battles well worth it. Or, offers Swinnen, merely being synonymous with independent rock or film in a city as communal as New Orleans.

"Nowadays, with the market the way it is, it seems like niches are the way to go," he says. "You find that niche, and you conquer that niche. [Static], Phat Phat, Timecode — we all have our niches. And I don't know of any other programming in the city that has that. We're pretty much it."


There's Still Time Missed the latest episode of Timecode: NOLA or Static Television? Not to worry: Cox 10 airs multiple reruns of both shows each week. For Timecode, the schedule is 11 p.m. Wednesdays, 7:30 p.m. Thursdays and 7 p.m. Sundays; for Static, it's 10 p.m. Tuesdays and 6:30 p.m. Thursdays. Timecode episodes also are available for download on iTunes. Visit www.timecodenola.com and www.statictelevision.com for archives and further information. — Pais
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