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Public access channels go digital with $1 million studio upgrades

Dale Roe

Remember when you went digital? Do you recall how excited you were when you abandoned your cassette tapes for CDs? How thrilled you were the first time you fired up a DVD player? If you use a DVR, your DVD player — indeed, physical media itself — probably seems obsolete.

That's how excited the folks over at ChannelAustin are.

Technology marches on, and it recently barreled through the community media center, which just completed a $1 million technology upgrade. The center has its roots in 1973 when "the people's TV" operated from an old house, a decommissioned Army Quonset hut and a space above a downtown toy store.

In January 1990, the City of Austin dedicated its "Austin Access Television Studio" at 1143 Northwestern Ave. in East Austin. From this building, programs produced by Austin-area residents still are distributed via channels 10, 11 and 16 to subscribers of Time Warner Cable and Grande Communications in Austin and surrounding municipalities. Concerts, talk shows, poetry readings and exercise classes have all been broadcast from the building. Entire living-room environments have been constructed inside, and an automobile has even been wheeled into its main studio.

The recent upgrade was funded by Time Warner Cable, obligated to provide the city $1.8 million as the remainder of a capital expenditure it owed under a 1996 local franchise agreement (nearly half a million of those dollars were spent two years ago on a playback system, and another $350,000 went to the City of Austin's Channel 6). The improvements were completed in September, and they have completely changed the way eclectic community programming is produced and delivered for broadcast.

ChannelAustin was able to add a third studio: the micro studio, in which one person sits behind a desk and does a show while simultaneously operating a robotic camera. The two other studios, main and mini, have been refurbished with new backdrops, blue screens, Teleprompters, chairs and paint. The control rooms are now Macintosh-based. Editing suites have been expanded. New field equipment includes high-definition cameras and record decks; tripods; microphones and light kits. Seven powerful iMacs are available for home editing, and there's a multicamera, portable system for shooting remote events. Producers should be thrilled with the changes: In March 2008, nearly 80 of them showed up at City Hall to voice complaints about the outdated and heavily used camera, editing and audio equipment.

The new digital production and editing tools, combined with a high-speed wiring overhaul, has allowed ChannelAustin to implement a digital workflow, completely without videotape. As late as December 2006, program tapes had to be hauled to Grande Communications for playback — 300 tapes were physically transported three times a week. Playback has been handled at the ChannelAustin facility for a while, but now programming will be captured, stored digitally and then fed through the wires.

"Video shot on the latest, tapeless HDV Sony cameras and edited on Mac computers using the industry standard Final Cut Pro software moves seamlessly and rapidly through the building," explains Stefan Wray, ChannelAustin's communications director.

The equipment is ultimately less-expensive to operate and more energy-efficient, and the upgrade simplifies and improves workflow, Wray says. It's more user-friendly and enhances production quality. He also cites another benefit for producers: Using the new tools gives them skills they could use in digital-media jobs, such as animation, game development and filmmaking.

ChannelAustin benefits, too.As a full-fledged digital media center, ChannelAustin will be able to expand into radio and music production, move services to the Internet, provide gallery space for artists and serve as a hub for other digital media endeavors. "The community will benefit by having access to multiple platforms for the distribution and consumption of local creative expression," Wray says.

It's impossible to fully explain in this space the transformation that has taken place over at 1143 Northwestern Ave., but it's easy to get caught up in Wray and company's enthusiasm. At any time, ChannelAustin has between 300 and 500 content producers, says Linda Litowsky, executive director, but they are always looking for more.

"Any Austin resident, as well as those living in the surrounding metro area, can join and become a ChannelAustin producer, enroll in training classes, learn to use the studios and field equipment, and produce programs that will air on the local cable channels and stream to the Internet," Wray says. The first step is to attend an orientation session — they're held every Monday (except for holidays) from 6-7 p.m. at the Northwestern Avenue facility. There is a producer's fee and various one-time, required classes with differing fees.

The center will see a more than $600,000 reduction in operating funds in 2011. That's when Time Warner's franchise agreement expires, and that money — collected from the cable company's subscribers and passed on to the city for public access TV services — vanishes. That's why the center is working to raise its profile with events like last month's Digital Fusion Fest, which showcased the made-over facilities, Wray says. "Our goal is to enlighten the larger community, as well as decision makers, as to the value and relevancy of ChannelAustin as an intrinsic part of what makes Austin uniquely Austin, and thus want to continue to support it."

It's not unreasonable to wonder how public access television remains relevant in an era when so many people have access to webcams, cell phones and video cameras to record content, and to the World Wide Web as the ultimate distribution channel. Wray and his cohorts wholeheartedly embrace the Internet (once a program airs, its producers are free to post it anywhere online, burn it to DVD or distribute it however they see fit) but they stress the importance of a physical space where people can "gather, meet and create together."

"Whereas it is not difficult these days for people to get their hands on camcorders and create short videos to post to YouTube and the like, the fact that we are a brick-and-mortar facility ... grounds us and connects us to our local community," Wray explains. "The content that Austin citizens develop and distribute with ChannelAustin's resources is by our community, about our community, and for our community."