The Whole World's Not Watching

If you live in Phoenix and have cable, the strangest thing on your TV isn't MTV's game show, those wild Trinity Broadcasting people, Married . . . With Children or even the Bill Close Report. It's not the shopping channel, Nick at Night or that Cajun guy who overdoes it with the wine. The strangest thing on TV is Channel 35, the Phoenix Channel.

Punch it up and you might see a game show for tax preparers. You might catch the ever-galvanizing video image of Calvin Goode, calmly opining at a Phoenix City Council meeting about some issue that needs further study. You might see a terrific little feature on historic preservation in Phoenix neighborhoods.

Or you might see several San Antonio police officers in uniform playing "Johnny B. Goode" behind an Elvis impersonator at a local high school auditorium.

A casual viewer wandering onto Channel 35 gets the eerie sensation that he's come across an alien world where the government controls the transmission towers and underground cable, a place where the mostly ignored business of running a big city actually might be interesting enough to televise. On Channel 35, Phoenix City Council meetings are broadcast (and later rerun) in full, without commentary, expert analysis or commercial interruption. Slick documentaries dissect the city's zoning philosophies. The mayor has a talk show.

Who watches this stuff?
Ken Lynch, a producer, writer and reporter for Channel 35 since the mid-1980s, has a good idea who his audience is. "In a way, we preach to the converted," he says. "Nobody's gonna watch if they're not interested in the first place. The people who we know are watching are people in government, people who do a lot of business in government and people involved in the seemingly endless stream of citizens' committees. The audience is a committed group of people."

A Channel 35 viewer, Lynch says, is the kind of person who would rather spend a Saturday afternoon at a Phoenix Futures Forum meeting than go to a Suns-Lakers game. "It's almost our function to not have any entertainment value at all," Lynch says, with only a trace of irony. THE ACCIDENTAL Channel 35 viewer--someone not connected to the city in any way (aside from paying taxes, of course)--gets the creepy feeling that he is the only person who might be watching. And he may be right. No one knows for sure how many people, if any, are watching the Phoenix Channel.

Mary Jo West, the former queen of local TV news and Channel 35's station manager since last August, says she's seen surveys that claim for the channel about 30,000 viewers. Mark Hughes, the city's top public-information official and West's direct superior, has an old memo on file that says the viewership might be more in the neighborhood of 50,000. According to the ratings services used by commercial TV stations, Channel 35's viewership is so small and scattershot that it can't be accurately counted. The numbers that appear next to the Phoenix Channel's name in the Nielsen ratings book are zeros.

The Phoenix Channel signed on in 1984 and is now one of the largest government-access channels in the country, employing fourteen full-time staffers plus a couple dozen part-time free-lancers. The station's annual budget is more than $700,000.

Channel 35 is essentially a fancy video press release for the city government. But if nobody is watching, why does it exist?

COMMERCIAL TELEVISION entities, including the networks~ (free and cable), local network affiliates and independents, exist to mak~e money. Public television, provider of Sesame Street, Frontline, and This Old House, exists to solicit money. Government-access stations, such as the Phoenix Channel and similar outfits in other cities, exist to spend money.

Most cable companies are monopolies. City governments grant exclusive, monopolistic franchises to cable companies for a couple of reasons. One, competing cable companies would have to string or bury redundant wires throughout a whole city. That could get messy. Two, cable companies have traditionally been willing to trade valuable services--free space on the dial--to cities for their monopoly rights.

Dimension Cable, a subsidiary of the Times Mirror communications giant, is cable provider to most of the Valley. As part of its franchise agreement with Phoenix, Dimension gives 5 percent of its gross revenue (or at least that part generated within the city limits) to the city government. Some of the money is used to help regulate cable services--an office at City Hall exists solely to take complaints from cable subscribers--and some of the money goes to fund Channel 35. The Phoenix Channel isn't funded by taxpayer money, so taxpayers can't gripe about spending money on it, or at least city officials don't have to listen if they do. The city's approximately 140,000 cable subscribers pay for the Phoenix Channel when they pay their bills every month.

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Dave Walker