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D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e    May 2008

Tube of Plenty

From government meetings to local talk and educational programming, Silver City's CATS community television proves TV doesn't have to be an "idiot box."

By Peggy Platonos



Silver City's community-access television system, which now brings educational, governmental and community-generated programs to the area 24 hours a day, seven days a week, via three cable channels and one commercial broadcasting station, began with a whimsical wish for one local resident and the technical know-how and tenacity of a handful of determined people.

CATS
CATS general manager John Waters and editor/technician Joe Kellerman at CATS headquarters, 213 N. Bullard St.
(Photo by Peggy Platonos)

The ball started rolling a little over 11 years ago for what today is known as CATS — an acronym for Community Access Television of Silver — and its progress was serendipity at its finest. Fresh from Austin, Texas, where an active community access television station flourished, Silver City attorney Quinn Martin began making inquiries about the possibility of creating the same type of thing here. "I kind of wanted a place where I could shoot a video of my band and get it on TV," he recalls. The band had the unlikely name "Chicken Lunch," and Ed Conley, its drummer, is currently vice president of the board of CATS.

Martin discovered a valuable resource in Pat Kingsley, who at the time was "involved in cable stuff" at Western New Mexico University in Silver City. Through her, he connected with others in the community who were eager to bring community access television to the area — namely Herbie Marsden, David Berry and Joe Hutto. And serendipity promptly kicked into high gear.

"It all just came together," Berry says. "When we examined the federal guidelines for cable companies and franchise agreements, we became aware there was, in fact, a mandate for the cable company to make available a specific block of channels for educational, community access and governmental use on the local band."

The group also discovered that, through a miracle of perfect timing, a franchise agreement between city and cable company was, at that very moment, in the process of being renegotiated.

"Since I was a lawyer, they said, 'Why don't you go over and represent us in the negotiations?' So I did," Martin recalls. Working with city attorney Celia Foy Castillo, he succeeded in getting a commitment by the cable company written into the new agreement, whereby the company would make three channels available for local programming in the Silver City area. Funding for that local programming would also be provided by the cable company through allocation of a percentage of its local revenues — another requirement mandated by the 1996 Telecommunications Act.

"Of course, writing it in didn't put anything on the air," Martin reflects. Before that could happen, an agent needed to be officially designated to handle the local community access programming. So the group volunteered, digging into their own pockets for the funds necessary to set up a non-profit corporation. "I incorporated CATS," Martin says. "And we all put up a hundred or two hundred dollars to pay the fees."

The officers of the fledgling corporation were Marsden as president, Berry as vice president, and Hutto as secretary/treasurer. Martin was the corporation's registered agent and legal counsel.

It took two tries for the corporation to be accepted by the town of Silver City as its official agent, but it eventually was. The group, meeting around Martin's dining table, then focused on the next hurdle: acquiring and installing the necessary equipment for television production and transmission.

Berry says, "Herbie Marsden is an electronics and computer whiz. He insisted that we needed to go digital from the ground up."

Martin recalls the discussion: "'What's digital?' we asked. 'Trust me,' Herbie said."

They did. "The board took a vote and took that bold move," Berry says. As a result, when the dust settled and computers, servers, cameras and other equipment had been purchased and installed, CATS became "the first all-digital community access television company, I think, in the United States," Berry says with obvious pride. "We acquired computer software that allowed us to produce content. We built computer servers."

And it was all accomplished on a very tight budget. "We developed our own digital server with hardware designed to serve motels. It probably cost us $25,000, which seems like a lot, but to buy something off the shelf at the time would have cost $50,000 to $100,000," explains John Waters, the current general manager. He joined CATS early on as a board member, then worked several years as part-time technician and volunteer cameraman before being tapped to replace the first general manager, Kyle Johnson, after Johnson left to take a job in Seattle.

"I remember the excitement of getting the first signal on," Martin says. "We were breaking ground all the time the first few years. We started first with Channel 17, and put everything on that channel. The first video was an election forum. Mike Lewis, Kyle Johnson and I got it taped and got it on the air."



Now, all three cable channels are up and running, full tilt, along with channel 8, a commercial broadcasting station that more or less fell into the lap of the CATS organization about three years ago, Waters reports. "I got a phone call out of the blue from a man who said he had a television station and was I interested in providing content for the station?" CATS agreed to provide governmental and community access programming, and later bought the station, Waters says. "It was my feeling that by having a broadcast television station, we could better serve the community because not everybody had access to cable."

And so it came to pass that KOOT-TV, channel 8, joined the CATS family of stations. All four channels continue to thrive, each with its own unique character.

Channel 18 is primarily devoted to education, with educational programming throughout most of the day received by satellite from the Annenberg Center for Public Broadcasting. The hours from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. are dedicated to higher-level educational instruction from the University of Washington.

Channel 19 carries predominantly governmental content, including the airing of government meetings, which are repeated throughout the day. "In the government programming, what you see first is the oldest meeting, so you'll have the background for issues being dealt with in later meetings and can follow events sequentially," Waters explains. "Of course, new meetings do take precedence and pre-empt the schedule."



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