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County agencies anxious for a cable station to cut through media filter

click to enlarge I want my Bruce TV.
  • I want my Bruce TV.

Various cash-strapped departments in El Paso County have cobbled together $78,000 to pay a consulting duo $195 an hour to help launch a government-run cable television channel.

"The biggest reason we should do this is so that people can see what goes on [in county government] without editing," said Commissioner Sallie Clark, who added that local newspapers and television stations often fail to portray the county's positive stories.

While a majority of the county commissioners supports the idea, Douglas Bruce said a county cable channel would "establish a new propaganda arm" and called the consultant's contract "offensive."

Six county departments, ranging from environmental services to transportation, have siphoned thousands of dollars from tight budgets for the proposal. The move comes at a time when many social services have been cut and some agencies face dwindling staff sizes and project backlogs.

But county officials say that, in spite of such woes, a cable station will be an effective use of tax dollars.

"County government is a mystery to most people," said Treasurer Sandra Damron, who, like all five commissioners, is an elected Republican.

The county needs to get information directly to citizens, instead of letting it be filtered through traditional media outlets, she added. Twice-weekly county commissioner meetings could be among the "shows" aired.

"You can't educate the public on complex issues with five-second sound bites," said Sheriff Terry Maketa, who has been embattled in a widely publicized controversy over the closing of the county's downtown jail.

In a vote last week, three of the five commissioners awarded up to $78,000 to River Oaks Communications Corp. in a rare no-competition bid. Commissioner Wayne Williams joined Bruce in voting against the contract. He said it didn't specify that a cable bill hike would require a vote to avoid violating the state's Taxpayer's Bill of Rights.

"This board will not violate the spirit of Colorado's constitution," Williams said.

Finding the dough

Brothers Thomas and Robert Duchen of River Oaks will attempt to negotiate with local cable companies Adelphia Communications Corp. and Falcon Broadband with an eye on getting a deal before Adelphia is acquired by national cable giant Comcast early next year.

The county hopes to follow in the footsteps of the city of Colorado Springs, which runs SpringsTV on Channel 18. City voters approved the franchise to create the cable channel in November 2000. Other local government institutions, including the Pikes Peak Library District and Pikes Peak Community College, subsequently have added five cable channels similar to the city station.

Adelphia, which holds the exclusive contract to provide cable to the residents of Colorado Springs, claims 85 percent of the area's television viewers have cable. The company charges those customers about $4 million each year to fund the government stations and its programs, which have included shows about the Uncle Wilbur Fountain in Acacia Park and reports on ailing Prospect Lake.

A county-run station could cost around $150,000 in initial equipment investment and up to $80,000 annually to operate, said Commissioner Clark, the channel's biggest booster.

That money could be carved out of the county's general fund, or the costs could be passed on to county residents outside of Colorado Springs. Clark said the county could generate up to $400,000 by raising unincorporated county residents' cable bills by 5 percent. City residents would receive the station for free.

Clowns with red noses

Sue Skiffington-Blumberg, who oversees Colorado Springs' public relations staff and its cable TV news, said her staff decides what to cover as news based on the goals of a majority of members on the City Council, as stated by her boss, City Manager Lorne Kramer.

"It all kind of cascades from there," she said.

SpringsTV aims to avoid controversy. Yet it can find itself in hot water anyway.

Earlier this year, a report regarding firefighters' pensions quoted two council members in favor of delaying benefits to new firefighters and only one opposed. This led to complaints from council that the report wasn't balanced.

Despite such issues, "We have the ability to tell the entire story," Skiffington-Blumberg said, citing the airing of entire City Council meetings as an example.

That is one reason to praise government-operated TV, said Ed Otte, executive director of the Colorado Press Association. He warned, however, that nobody should rely completely on the official take.

"The risk is, it can be slanted to portray local government in a positive light," he said.

Bruce ridiculed programming on SpringsTV before last week's vote, calling the channel a cheery clown show. He threatened to sue the county if it raised cable rates without a vote.

"We have enough clowns in government," he said. "I don't think we need the ones dressed up with red noses."

That prompted Clark to question Bruce's motives.

"Bruce is the epitome of being able to use the media to his advantage," she said. "Why is Commissioner Bruce afraid of people watching him on TV?"

-- Michael de Yoanna and Dan Wilcock

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