I Want My GVT TV

Or do I? Is government-access TV worth the big price tag?

Over a breathtaking aerial shot of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge comes the stentorian voice, deep and male and warmly familiar, intoning:

"From the studios of Pinellas 18, your county connection, this [pause] is Inside Pinellas."

Click to change the channel.

"This month on Spotlight Tampa, viewers get a unique look at the 'I am Tampa, doing my part!' civic pride campaign."

Click. The Mayor's Hour. Click. Commissioner's Corner. Click. Clearwater Matters. Click. St. Pete Values. Click. Good Business Pinellas. Click. City at Work.

Welcome to the world of government-access television, a $6-million-a-year enterprise at five of the region's largest governments alone. That comprises five cable stations operating nonstop, plus one UHF broadcast station in St. Petersburg beaming government's message to those who don't have cable television. Thousands of hours of live meeting coverage. Hundreds of hours of original programming.

The programs are as slick and professional as any commercial newscast. But these are not the reporters and anchors at the local ABC, NBC, CBS or Fox affiliates. They are government employees, bringing you the good word about their bosses' good work.

Government-access television is the big dog of the so-called PEG stations (Public, Educational, Government) created by the national movement toward access on cable franchises. Better funded and watched more often than the other two categories (see Eric Snider's cover story about the current state of public access TV), government access has grown from simply pointing a camera at a meeting to a highly evolved public relations and communications machine.

Former commercial news broadcasters (Pinellas' Marcia Crawley, Tampa's Susanna Martinez and Hillsborough's Steve Overton are the most prominent) host shows or even run the communications department. The government stations all win national and international awards, like Tampa's recent recognition by the Alliance for Community Media as the best government television. Some now even offer internships to teach future broadcasters how it all works.

So, is government television providing vital information the public needs, part of ensuring the integrity of our democratic process? Or is it slick and subtle propaganda funded by our own tax dollars?

One national expert thinks the growth and sophistication of government television begs exactly that question.

"I have a lot of problems with them" throughout the nation, said Jim Snider, a Harvard-educated senior research fellow with the New American Foundation in Washington, D.C. "Elected officials get face time doing feel-good kinds of things, teaching the public about trash or crime or something like that."

He draws a distinction between televising public meetings and the slick news magazine-style shows that increasingly populate the government TV schedule and "spend huge amounts of money on fancy camera setups and production values."

"Nobody is going to dispute that televising public meetings is not a public good," Snider said. As for the other produced shows, "no one pays attention to it, and as a result, the system tends to be open to abuse."

The operators of the government television stations make a compelling case for the level of spending on their dissemination of information.

"I think that's necessary because people demand quality," said Mike Foerster, Hillsborough County's director of communications, who oversees HTV 22 and its $2.4-million budget. "We are in an information age. We have people who have grown up on television, and they expect it to look good."

Clearwater's director of communications, Doug Matthews, said modern times require modern forms of communication.

"We have to reach people in the way that is most convenient for them," said Matthews, whose C-View Channel 15 operates on a $400,000 budget, not including the $600,000 in equipment purchased over the past decade with cable franchise grants.

Almost all of the five large governments examined for this story (Pinellas and Hillsborough counties; Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater) can point to resident or viewer surveys that show support for government television. In a 2002 Hillsborough survey, 85 percent of respondents said "HTV 22 provides a valuable community service." In Clearwater, 43 percent said they get their government information from C-View.

Snider's research concludes that viewership is a false indicator of the value of government television. He insists that the best benefits are that televising meetings keeps the media honest in its coverage and provides activists and opposition politicians with the fodder they need to keep incumbents and government in check.

Hillsborough County's Foerster, a former Tampa Tribune editor, points to objectivity in programming with the Weekly Review pundit show he created (and on which I have appeared once). Local politicians, political consultants, media and activists are invited on the show and can say anything they want, even if it is critical of county government, a concept Foerster says is "pretty far out for government."

Tampa Bay government television also meets an important test that Snider makes in deciding the information vs. propaganda question: All five make tapes of their programming and meetings available to the public, for fees ranging from $10 to $20 per tape.

But there is no doubt that the powerful medium of television is enticing to politicians, especially when it is free and when it is "unfiltered" by the mainstream media. Of the "Big 3" mayors, only St. Petersburg's Rick Baker doesn't have his own show. (WSPF-TV station manager Cathi Brake said Baker appears in coverage of groundbreakings and ribbon-cuttings, among other things.) Outgoing Clearwater Mayor Brian Aungst, in fact, created a bit of a stir at City Hall when he asked for his own public affairs show on C-View, even though commissioners already had a show on which they shared hosting duties.

At election time, incumbents know there is a benefit to appearing on their government television shows in a positive light. (When I was a political consultant, just about every one of my clients did, because I discussed it with them.) Opponents complain. Sometimes, incumbents are forced off the air temporarily, like this year when Pinellas County pulled its Progressive Pinellas show (hosted by county commissioners). Chief Deputy Jim Coats stepped down as host of Your Sheriff's Office after the St. Petersburg Times inquired about the propriety of receiving taxpayer-funded exposure during his successful campaign for Pinellas Sheriff (one of the last campaigns I ran).

How sacred are government television budgets? When Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio told City Council members in September that she needed to trim $1.5 million from her proposed budget to pay for hurricane cleanup, it was the police, fire, public works and parks/recreation budgets that shouldered the cuts. The Cable Communications budget (which also includes funds for public and educational channels) came through unscathed.

UPDATE: The Political Whore's tale about a new Tampa government form requiring applicants to list their sexual liaisons with city employees found its way to City Attorney David L. Smith and Mayor Pam Iorio. Smith said he was unaware of the form until reading about it in the Nov. 17 issue of Weekly Planet. As a result, Smith said last week, the mayor deep-sixed the offending form and pulled it from the city website for job applicants. Tampa is going to look for a more reasonable way to enforce its ethics rules.

The Political Whore admits to not being a regular watcher of government television. He prefers reality TV. You can reach him at 813-832-6427 or by e-mail at [email protected].

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