The Seattle Channel, the city-run TV station on cable 21 that carries live City Council meetings during the day and a mixture of public TV-style programming the rest of the time, is launching an ambitious live public affairs broadcast today from Town Hall. At the same time, the station — typically shielded from market forces that make live programming cost-prohibitive on commercial and public TV — is facing staff cuts next year as a result of the weakened economy.
The new 90-minute program, called "Seattle Speaks," is being produced in partnership with CityClub and will air live at 7 p.m. tonight, with many replays scheduled. "Seattle Speaks" will examine the city'ês $8 million Youth Violence Prevention Initiative with help from Mariko Lockhart, director of the initiative; Seattle City Councilmember Bruce Harrell; a representative of the Seattle Police Department'ês gang unit; a former gang member; and local youth who'êve experienced violence. The live audience at Town Hall (of specially invited guests) will participate in the conversation and with handheld polling devices, while cable and online viewers will be able to take part via web-based polls.
"Seattle Speaks" host and producer C.R. Douglas (who also writes occasionally for Crosscut) says it won'êt be much like a traditional panel discussion with a podium on a dais, but will be more like a 'êtalk show in the round.'ê
'êI'êve always wanted to play Phil Donahue,'ê Douglas said. Douglas, who also hosts the weekly public affairs program "City Inside/Out" for the station, hopes this will be the first in a series of similar live broadcasts from Town Hall, with as many as four presentations examining other issues per year.
Live broadcasting from Town Hall of programs such as "Seattle Speaks" — which is reminiscent of KOMO'ês old "Town Meeting" program with Ken Schram — was made possible by the installation of fiber-optic cable connecting the venue to Seattle Channel facilities in the basement of City Hall. While live programs from Town Hall have been in the works for several years and installation of the cable was completed in spring 2008, tonight's forum will be the first time it'ês been used for a live broadcast.
The new program comes at what may appear to be a crossroads for the Seattle Channel, as video-savvy Mayor Greg Nickels departs after two terms and countless televised press conferences, community events, and monthly episodes of "Ask The Mayor." However, though functionally a part of the Department of Information Technology, the Seattle Channel is editorially independent of both the city'ês executive branch and the City Council. Thus, when Mayor Mike McGinn takes office in January, it will mean little in the way of content changes for the station, says Station Manager Beth Hester.
The Seattle Channel's independence from meddling by the mayor or council is a result of Nickels'ê predecessor, Paul Schell, and former City Councilmember Jim Compton, who in 2001 put together a Seattle Commission on Electronic Communications to look at the future of technology and civic engagement and what that meant for civic television and the Internet. In addition to editorial independence, the commission'ês final report (PDF) also recommended several strategies that have been carried out over the past eight years, including: rebranding (shifting 'êTVSea'ê to the Seattle Channel); expanding Seattle programming beyond meetings at City Hall; and putting all programming online long before some local stations had any programming online.
Former KCTS public TV producer and executive Gary Gibson was hired as station manager in 2002, and it was under his leadership (while KCTS was struggling with scandal and cutting back on local programming) that the Seattle Channel quietly took over as the de facto public TV station within the city limits. Gibson, who last year was promoted to oversee all of the city'ês electronic communications (including the Seattle.gov website, oversaw the Seattle Channel's shift from C-Span-like 'êall meetings, all the time'ê to a broad mixture of civic, arts and cultural programming. Hester, who was Gibson'ês deputy during his Seattle Channel tenure, assumed management of the station when Gibson moved upstairs in 2008.
While the station will be shielded from transition in the mayor'ês office, it'ês not likely to remain immune to the effects of the weak economy. With an operating budget of roughly $2 million drawn from taxes paid by cable subscribers, the Seattle Channel has cut back on freelancers during 2009 and is facing cuts for 2010 that will likely eliminate two full-time positions and reduce a third position to half-time. Hester says that cable tax revenues are down, and that some of the existing budget will likely be shifted elsewhere. 'êIn tough economic times, there are additional competing demands on that fund,'ê Hester said.
The channel also receives dedicated funding from Comcast (as part of Comcast'ês franchise agreement) to produce arts-related content, including the weekly "Art Zone" program hosted by Nancy Guppy. "Art Zone" programming won'êt be affected by budget cuts.
Meanwhile, recession or not, the Seattle Channel will demonstrate tonight whether or not old-fashioned live TV — mostly given up long ago by local broadcasters everywhere — can make a positive difference in youth violence and in the evolution of electronic media.
Editor's note: Feliks Banel was communications manager for the Seattle Channel from 2006-2008, and has worked occasionally as a freelance producer for the station.