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Public-access TV is here and on the air in Albany—and waiting for the public to get involved

by Erin Pihlaja on July 19, 2012

 

‘Brother” Richard Gavroy leaned against a wall in the basement of the Albany Public Library. Dressed all in black, he wiped the sweat off of his brow as he waited to be let into a locked room, just past the librarian’s desk.

Another man, also wearing black, walked through the automatic doors and apologized for being late. The two men were friendly and chatted as they walked down the hallway. The second man, Joe Piazzo, unlocked the door and flicked on the lights. Each was familiar with the space, they had worked together before. They were here on this day to film the 265th show of Gavroy’s Christian TV series, Thy Word Is Truth.

The space behind the locked door is the production studio for Channel Albany, the now fully functioning public-access channel that will be broadcast on Time Warner Cable’s channel 18. It has been years since Albany had its own public-access channel. In the 1990s, the old studio at the same library was closed down, and in 2004 the contract between Time Warner Cable and the city of Albany expired. In exchange for rights to the cable infrastructure within a municipality, the operating communications company must provide certain public service requirements such as a channel dedicated to the broadcasting needs of the public, funding, facilities, and equipment. It took six years for the city and Time Warner to come to an agreement, during which the people of Albany had no public-access television, an entity often lumped together with educational and government programming, a grouping wholly known by the acronym PEG.

More than another year passed while the other four partners of the public-access initiative signed off on their parts. The negotiations were finally hashed out between the city of Albany, Time Warner, the New School of Radio and Television, the College of Saint Rose, the Albany City School District, and the Albany Public Library in the first half of 2011. Finally the PEG board, an oversight committee set up by the city of Albany, was formed. Channel Albany saw its hard-earned soft opening take place in June 2012.

“It’s the public’s channel,” said Piazzo, access coordinator of Channel Albany. “It’s there for everyone to utilize.” Piazzo has had a history of working with public access, and has seen that participation from the public is the main reason for a station’s survival.

“Public access is a unique type of thing,” he said. “It’s the only noncommercial broadcasting there is now.” While it is commercial-free, there is also no revenue to secure other employees, for ever-evolving equipment needs, or to compensate producers who provide content. It’s up to regular citizens to devote their energies, with the help of Channel Albany’s equipment, to create unique programming.

Time Warner did provide funding as per the agreement, but part of those funds will not be available until Channel Albany meets certain requirements. For the second half of the money, around $217,000, Channel Albany will have to meet specific programming goals through the first 24 months and then maintain at least 25 hours of original programming each week afterwards. While it seems like a good chunk of change from Time Warner, the length of the contract is for 10 years.

Piazzo noted that the scarce resources can be a problem. “Some studios throw a million dollars at a problem. We throw five hundred dollars at it,” he said. Still, he is excited about what public-access television offers.

“You can run any type of programming. Anything you put on YouTube you can put here, with no time constraints,” he said. That goes for risqué content too. The station abides by the FCC “safe harbor” rules, which allow for adult programming to be broadcast after 10 PM. Since there are no advertisements, Piazzo also noted that content won’t be constrained by commercial interests.

Joe Cunniff, a member of the PEG oversight board, got involved with the Albany Community Television, a website that broadcasts videos of Albany public meetings, more than three years ago. It was at the filming of one of these meetings for ACT, that he got involved with the efforts to bring public access television back to the city. “Public access is a vehicle to get your material to people locally,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for you to express your views.” He knows firsthand that there are many meetings in Albany to air on the channel, but he is looking forward to seeing the original programming of amateurs and experienced producers in Albany.

“It is critical for the public to get engaged,” he said. “If we don’t meet the programming requirements, we don’t get the extra money. It’s a carrot on a stick.”

Those involved want to see Channel Albany stick around. “It’s a First Amendment issue. This is a conduit for people’s needs on television,” Piazzo said. “It gives the people access where there is a monopoly of [television] channels.”

More information on Channel Albany can be found at channelalbany.org.