Council TV

Broadcasts of the Reno City Council don’t draw an audience like that of The Bachelor—will it be pulled from the air?

Mayor Bob Cashell wants to keep city government open and transparent. He’d just like to look at new ways of doing so.

Mayor Bob Cashell wants to keep city government open and transparent. He’d just like to look at new ways of doing so.

Photo By David Robert

So, does anyone out there actually watch the Reno City Council meetings broadcast on Sierra Nevada Community Access Television?

Hmm. Hard to say.

Because community-access TV doesn’t sell advertising on its three Reno cable stations, Arbitron doesn’t include viewer numbers for SNCAT stations in surveys.

At a Reno City Council meeting in mid-December, Mayor Bob Cashell contended that “very few people” watch the broadcast in its entirety.

“I think it’s a waste,” he said of the money spent to broadcast the raw content of meetings, adding that the council’s money might be better spent on public-relations-type shows.

But some say the mayor may be missing the mark.

The city of Reno is getting plenty of bang for its buck with the meeting broadcasts. The cost of taping even a 10-hour meeting is still less than the cost of producing, say, a half-hour show like the city’s occasional Around the Arch.

Here’s why.

To tape an eight- to 10-hour council meeting, SNCAT pays one camera operator an hourly wage that’s usually less than $10 an hour. If the camera operator is new at the job, she or he may be making as little as $6.50 an hour, said Don Alexander, SNCAT production director.

A half-hour show takes four or five people to produce—from audio technicians to directors to camera operators to editors. SNCAT ends up paying for about 50 production hours. That’s far more costly than taping a council meeting.

The meetings are aired live and also taped for subsequent broadcasts or for Reno activists who want copies or “dubs” of certain portions. SNCAT gets more requests for dubs of Reno City Council meetings than it does for any of the other community programs it airs.

That seems to suggest that someone’s watching—or at least they’re watching the part of the meeting in which they’re interested, Alexander said.

“People do watch,” he said. “It’s surprising. We get a lot of people who walk in our door; some are with political groups and they have an agenda. If it’s important to them, we know they watch.”

More anecdotal evidence that people watch comes from those who answer the phones at SNCAT. If a councilperson’s microphone happens to be turned off during a discussion, viewers call in to suggest it be turned back on. Also, Alexander noted, during some meetings in which a topic is debated at some length, he’s seen the audience grow as the discussion continues.

“I’ve listened to people say, ‘I was at home watching this, and I just had to come down [to council chambers] and comment on it,’ “ Alexander said.

Cashell told the RN&R that the idea is not about money as much as it is about the best way to communicate with citizens. Since the city is still working out the details of a new franchise agreement with the local cable company, now seems a good time to look at the city’s arrangement with SNCAT.

SNCAT came into being in 1991, with the goal of building community through media. Community access TV exists because the local cable TV company pays a franchise fee to local governments. (Actually, viewers pay this franchise fee as part of their monthly cable bills.) The fee reimburses the public for the use of its right-of-ways.

This money collected by Charter Communications goes directly to local governments, including Washoe County and the city of Sparks. The city of Reno received about $1.4 million in franchise fees last year. More than three-quarters of this money went into the city’s general fund.

A bit more than 20 percent went back into the community via SNCAT. The city spends $285,000 on SNCAT, a sum that funds the broadcasts of what Alexander calls “a laundry list of [city] meetings,” from the council to citizen advisory and other board meetings. The sum pays for a bimonthly Around the Arch show, as well as a one-hour live call-in show if the city chooses to do one.

Along with Sparks and Washoe County, the city of Reno funds also cover the costs of maintaining the local community TV and radio studios at The Media Center, where citizens can be trained to create their own not-for-profit broadcast media. After this training, it’s free to use The Media Center’s facilities, and it’s free to have the resulting content aired on one of SNCAT’s three stations.

Charter Communications’ cable TV franchise with the city of Reno expired in October. The City Council has granted extensions while officials debate the details of a new agreement. The council extended its contract with SNCAT to continue taping and airing meetings for another 90 days. The council will talk about its deal with SNCAT at an upcoming retreat.

Cashell said he hasn’t received much response from the report that the broadcasts could be cancelled. More people seem to support killing the meeting coverage.

“Certain individuals get up and play there … during public comment times,” Cashell said. This could lead to less-than-desirable publicity for the city, he said. “Some of the grandstanding some of the individuals do is not good for the community.”

Often, people have good ideas during public-comment time, Cashell said. But it can be frustrating when the same three or four people take up about an hour and a half at each council meeting.

In an e-mail to Cashell, one resident described watching a council meeting broadcast with a friend from out-of-town. The friend was less than impressed with some of the public-comment antics.

“He said, ‘If there were many people like that in Reno, I wouldn’t want to live there,’ “ Cashell said.

During proposals regarding development of the Mapes lot, Cashell heard professionals from outside the Reno area comment negatively on some of the citizen input.

He said he didn’t know if this would actually discourage out-of-town developers from investing in Reno.

“But it’s something to look at,” he said.

Whether people watch the broadcasts of government meetings isn’t the point, contends citizen activist Sam Dehne. The self-proclaimed “singing encyclopedia of Reno government” hasn’t missed a Reno City Council meeting since 1995.

“This is the worst thing anybody has ever done in the community,” Dehne said of the proposal to get rid of broadcasts. “It’s 1930s Germany. It’s Nazism.”

The point of taping meetings, in Dehne’s view, is not only to provide the public with increased access to city government via cable TV, it’s also an essential element to the watch-dogging process.

For example, he’s glad the cameras were running at a June 1999 council meeting, when Dehne contended (in a pending lawsuit) that he was denied his right by then-Mayor Jeff Griffin to comment publicly on an airport issue. Without the tapes, judges in the federal appeals court might not have believed Dehne’s account of what happened. Because the judges were able to view a video recording of the meeting, they voted unanimously to send Dehne’s case back to trial. (A federal judge in Reno had previously dismissed the case.)

“We had a videotape of the crime taking place!” Dehne exclaimed. “City Hall is guilty of that crime … and the main thing is the whole thing is captured on videotape!”

It’s not like the city is adverse to spending money to promote itself, Dehne noted. He’d like to know how much the city paid to create, print and distribute the glossy city of Reno calendar inserted recently in the Reno Gazette-Journal. Dehne also said he doesn’t intend to go downtown to watch the fireworks display to which the city recently decided to contribute $10,000.

Saving money is just a convenient excuse, Dehne claimed, for what seems to him a darker agenda.

“It is obvious censorship by every definition of the word,” he said. “It’s evil and it’s rotten.”

Is the city trying to hide its proceedings from the public eye?

“Absolutely not,” Cashell said. “That’s so much BS. … Nothing could be further from the truth. We’re very open, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

The idea is to get a breakdown of what public-access TV costs the city and make an informed decision based on the numbers, Cashell said.

“Maybe the way we’re doing it is the best way to do it,” Cashell said.

As for the SNCAT staff, Alexander said they’re ready, obviously, to do whatever the council directs.

“We just aim the cameras wherever they want," he said. "It’s their program. If it’s thought through, though, I suspect they’ll find out there’s enough people and enough interest [to continue broadcasting meetings]. People like to see the raw deal, unfiltered."