The Battle for BCAT

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Any couch potato worth his or her chips has surfed cable television channels and landed on shows like Ghettonomics, Rent Wars or Dyke TV. Maybe the production is a bit raw, but that’s what public access to the airwaves is all about.

Or is it? A series of changes at Brooklyn Community Access Television (BCAT) and the resignation of top staffers have left some workers and experts questioning whether the stations’ mandate–to provide an independent broadcast forum for residents of the borough–is being abused by government.

According to sources who work at the station, things began to change shortly after Borough President Marty Markowitz took office in 2002 and began to exert pressure on BCAT–a project of the nonprofit organization Brooklyn Information and Culture (BRIC)–to clean up what airs. Markowitz recently said he was “horrified” by the soft core porn and gritty violence that some of the borough’s young Wayne’s World–type producers aired on BCAT. But insiders say he also saw an opportunity: By converting one of BCAT’s four stations into a home for “flagship programming,” he could present the borough in a better light.

“Basically [Markowitz] appointed the hosts of programs, giving people he knows a show instead of the channel being used on a first-come, first-served basis for the community,” says one source.

Markowitz maintains close ties to BRIC. Among recent appointments to its board is Michael Burke, Markowitz’ former chief of staff, who is now director of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce’s Downtown Brooklyn Council.

But Markowitz’ spokesperson, Michael Kadish, says the borough president is not meddling. “Marty is interested in encouraging programs made by community producers about Brooklyn’s diverse communities that will appeal to Brooklynites,” he explains.

Meanwhile, however, several top-level staff have left. Longtime BCAT director Onida Coward Mayers and Programming Manager Domingo Martin both resigned this fall, following the departure of BRIC Executive Director Nanette Rainone at the beginning of Markowitz’ term. Neither Coward Mayers nor Martin would discuss their resignations on record. According to BRIC, Coward Mayers resigned for personal reasons. But sources close to the fray say both resigned due to differences with BRIC management on how BCAT is run.

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Understanding Markowitz’ influence on BCAT calls for a bit of history. The franchises under which the boroughs’ cable TV providers do business were originally brokered in the 1980s by the New York City Board of Estimate, on which borough presidents wielded considerable power. The franchise agreements require cable companies to contribute $4.85 per customer each year to a public access fund–and for each borough president to create “independent” nonprofits to operate four channels set aside for public access.

But in Brooklyn, then–Borough President Howard Golden didn’t create a new organization for public access. Nor was it independent. He designated the Fund for the Borough of Brooklyn, a nonprofit organization his office had already launched to promote the borough and its culture, to be the parent organization of BCAT. Renamed BRIC a few years ago, the organization received $2.2 million in franchise fees for BCAT in 2002.

Flagship programming, which existed before Markowitz was elected to office, includes three shows produced in-house: Brooklyn Review, a news magazine show; Reporter’s Roundtable; and local sports. But now these shows have their own channel, with guaranteed prime time slots. Markowitz also initiated the Neighborhood Beat series, in which BCAT film crews are sent out to specific locales, each with a handpicked host. To facilitate the series, his office provided a one-time $250,000 grant, according to Tammy Dillon, BRIC’s executive director.

Dillon defends BCAT’s new direction, asserting that public access is still in its infancy and there are probably “2.5 million possible opinions on what kinds of shows should be broadcast.”

“It’s undefined and an interesting dilemma,” she says. “Can we have programs that meet the needs of the viewer and at the same time, are made by community producers or volunteers of the community? This is what we are working to figure out.”

Dillon sees Neighborhood Beat as a sort of compromise, a way for in-house staff to work with the outside community. Brighton Beach Neighborhood Association President Pat Singer, for example, was tapped by Markowitz to host one segment of the show.

But Singer’s selection doesn’t sit well with Brighton Beach activist Zev Yorman, who sees the series as a way to control the airwaves. “I’ve been fighting with Singer for years over her claims of being a tenant activist, and I and other activists in the Brighton Beach and Coney Island area should have equal access to that channel,” says Yorman.

Neighborhood Beat also raises questions about the use of BCAT’s in-house staff. With only 20 or so producers and technicians available to help train members of the public, some of them say they are already spread thin. “They’re making decisions here and have no knowledge of how a station works and how to do a production and what it involves in manpower and costs,” says one worker.

Conflict between management and labor deepened in November when the staff voted 21 to 3 to join the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians union. A workers’ negotiating committee is currently being formed and plans to meet with BRIC management in the near future.

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Across the bridge in Manhattan, the world of public access seems less contentious. BCAT’s Manhattan counterpart, Manhattan Neighborhood Network (MNN), which also has four channels, receives its allocation directly via Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields, who gets two appointments to the board of directors but otherwise stays out of the process, explains MNN Executive Director Steve Mendelsohn. “Access is totally uncensored and non-commercial,” he says. “It is a public resource so residents of the borough can exercise their First Amendment right. We do not influence content. We take what people bring us and put it on the air.”

Mendelsohn, BronxNet executive director Michael Knobbe and Queens Public Television executive director Nancy Littlefield all say they do in-house programs similar to BCAT’s flagship programming, but only on occasion. The cable allocations to these boroughs each go to a single nonprofit whose one job is to oversee the borough’s public access channels.

Bunnie Riedel, executive director for the Washington-based National Alliance for Community Media, was concerned to hear about Markowitz’ involvement, and suggested he contact cable operators for a government access station instead.

“If the borough president is making decisions on what will be on public access, then there will be people left out of the public forum,” says Riedel, whose organization has about 1,000 member stations across the country. “It’s an overreach of government in the worst degree. Even if it’s only one station–those stations belong to the people of Brooklyn, not the borough president.”

Stephen Witt is a reporter for Courier Life newspapers in Brooklyn.