Curtains for Certain?

Access Tucson says it will shut down at the end of the month without more funding

This could be the final episode for Access Tucson, the nonprofit organization that has run the city's public-access facility for more than three decades.

Access Tucson Executive Director Lisa Horner announced over the weekend that the downtown studio facility would be closing to the public on May 31.

Horner, who has worked at Access since the 1980s, said it was hard to see it on the verge of shutting down.

"We're looking at the loss of a place for the community to gather, learn and create media for a public perspective," she said.

The city of Tucson, which once gave Access Tucson more than a million dollars a year from cable franchise fees, had whittled that amount to just $150,000 this year. Even with staff taking pay cuts, the money has simply run out, according to Horner.

"We had half a year's budget and we made it last almost a whole fiscal year," Horner said.

Access Tucson will continue to program the public-access channel through the end of June, when—unless the city makes additional funding available—a message will appear simply stating that due to lack of funding, no programming is available.

With Access Tucson on the ropes, Interim Tucson City Manager Martha Durkin has proposed creating a new "community media center" that would be responsible for managing the public access programming; providing video production training; recording the City Council meetings for broadcast on the city's channel; and producing commercials highlighting the city as a good place to do business.

The city has issued a Request for Proposals for a new entity to run the community media center. The RFP states that an estimated $300,000 per year will be available for the first two years as part of start-up costs but funding will decrease afterwards, with the city seeking "an entrepreneurial business model that eventually results in a self-sustaining organization whereby the city only pays for services directly received."

The RFP also states that the city anticipates whatever entity takes over funding to find a new headquarters quickly. The current downtown building, on Broadway Boulevard just east of Sixth Avenue, would be available for "up to a year."

Horner said that she is preparing a proposal for the city, but she worried that the cost of running such a facility is far higher than what the city is prepared to shell out.

"I started working out a budget and I'm already at $535,000 to actually do all those things that they want," Horner said. "It seems to be an underfunded proposal."

Access Tucson was created in 1984 when Cox Communications won the right to provide Tucsonans with their first cable TV service. In those days, cable companies competed for a franchise and one of the perks offered was a robust public access system that allowed Tucsonans to make their own TV shows. Over the last 30-plus years, Access has offered low-cost camera, sound and editing training, as well letting members check out video equipment and reserve studio time.

Access Tucson became home to a fascinating mix of producers over the years. Along with public affairs programming about local politics and nonprofits, there have been shows produced by aspiring televangelists, would-be comedians, local musicians and an oddball assortment of cranks who aired shows like "The Great Satan at Large" and "Russia Has Wooden Missiles," a Cold War documentary which suggested that the Soviet Union was tricking American officials about its arms capabilities by setting up large arrays of wooden missiles. (Full disclosure: I worked on a number of unremarkable shows at Access in the 1980s and later worked with staff there to produce televised presidential debates with dark-horse candidates on the Arizona primary ballot in 2008 and 2012. Last year, I launched a public-affairs show, "Zona Politics," in the Access studios.)

The idea behind public access TV in the 1980s was simple: Television was becoming a dominant form of communication but it was very expensive to make a show, so the means of TV production should be put in the hands of the common person.

But the various cable companies that have controlled the Tucson franchise cut back on their support of public access and eventually handed over the funding to the city. And while the city receives millions of dollars in fees from the cable agreement, officials have been steadily cutting back support of Access as they've faced growing budget problems. A decade ago, the city was proving more than a million dollars a year to Access, which was considered one of the best facilities in the nation. This year, the city provided just $150,000 and a warning that more cuts were likely on the way.

Horner said she and the Access Tucson board of directors were weighing whether to submit a proposal to run the proposed community media center, but she was concerned that it would be difficult to produce a decent product with the proposed funding levels.

She pointed out that the new contract will take three to nine months to award, which would mean a long time before more funding was available even if they did win the bid.

"Who can wait for that?" Horner said.

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