Monday, October 6, 2008

Re: Capital article, "School board's TV debut delayed"

In relation to the Capital’s article last week on TV coverage of Board of Education meetings, I’ve been asked “how is it possible that the budget for AACPS Board of Education meetings increased from $100,000 to $400,000 without any public discussion or vote?” Here is my attempt at an answer.

It’s my sense that the school system, much like the rest of County government, has decided to use PEG/iNet funds as a slush fund for non-PEG/iNet related expenditures. This is strictly against the law (and even the County’s PEG/iNet ordinance). But as far as I know, the Federal Communications Commission, which is supposed to administer and enforce the PEG/iNet laws, has no mechanism to do so . As long as AACPS provides a figleaf excuse for diverting PEG/iNet funds, it will face no penalty for doing so. If somebody else’s budget will pay for AACPS upgrading of electrical systems and the purchase of all sorts of neat toys, why not take advantage of it? Think of yourself as one of AACPS’s TV guys working under Don Cramer: the more high-tech toys you have, the more respected you will be within AACPS and the more competitive you will be when you look for other, non-AACPS TV work.

Do we really need BOE meeting coverage in high definition TV? Does AACPS really need an additional $400,000 TV studio at Riva Road in addition to the $250,000 studio they built a few years ago in the same building? And what about the $1 million dollar public access TV studio built in Glen Burnie a few years ago and linked via the iNet to Riva Road? With three state-of-the-art and grossly underutilized TV studios in the County, why are we building a fourth? With today’s robotic cameras, both editing equipment and camera operators could work remotely (a practice utilized by the best and most efficient government access TV operations).

In Vermont, the average town has less than 10,000 people, and the towns would cover public meetings in the early 1990s just fine with consumer grade video cameras. Someone would simply plug the video camera into the reverse feed cable socket, turn on the camera, and hit the on button. Sure, AACPS can afford to do it much more professionally—like a commercial TV studio. But $400,000+ for an anachronistic, citizen unfriendly, glitzy commercial broadcast TV style setup? Give me a break.

I televised one of the School Board Nominating Commission meetings with my simple Dell laptop (cost: $1,000), Microsoft OneNote program (cost: $44) and clip-on high resolution video camera (cost: $60). I sat in the front row of the meeting and simply pointed my lap, laptop, and camera at each speaker. Using Microsoft OneNote (a tool widely used by college students to record lectures), I was also able to index all the video, so I could immediately find any segment that was of interest to me. If the Commission had allowed me to plug the audio feed from the meeting into my laptop, I could have had crystal clear audio.

From my perspective, even video at a tiny fraction of my OneNote recording quality would have been more than adequate for purposes of our YouTube generation video users. What’s so terrible with YouTube quality video for talking heads? Did you find it so awful watching on YouTube the video of Katie Couric interviewing VP candidate Sarah Palin? If I have a choice between commercial broadcast HD quality and YouTube quality video, all other things being equal, I’d of course prefer HD quality. But what if that comes at the cost of conveniently posting video clips to the Countywide and local CACs? If it comes at the cost of much restricted video coverage, as the school board says it can only cover a fraction of its public meetings and none that don’t take place in the Riva Road boardroom? And what if it means that there is no money to integrate the written agendas with the video and provide other types of citizen friendly accessibility? And why do we have professional/broadcast quality images but not professional/broadcast quality access to those image? I cannot imagine a commercial TV studio today that doesn’t electronically index its video so producers cannot instantly call up and insert relevant video clips from prior programs into new programs; indeed, some TV shows now have more online than broadcast TV viewers. What are all those multipurpose servers in the County doing that they cannot use a small fraction of their capacity to empower the citizens?

Yeah, I like HD quality coverage with world class lighting and every vanity amenity (so those being filmed always know how they look on screen and can make adjustments to look the best possible). But AACPS is asking us to pay too high a price in lost accessibility (and democratic accountability) for those features.

I posted my critique of the Capital’s BOE TV coverage article on

--Jim Snider

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