Public-Access TV Channels Enhance Community
by RICHARD H. McCALL, Media Specialist Alliance Public Schools Alliance, Neb. Thanks to cooperative efforts of local officials, the school district, the agricultural extension service and Telecommunications Cablevision Inc. (TCI) of Nebraska, cable TV subscribers in Alliance, Neb., are actively using three local public-access television channels as part of their regular cable TV service. In 1991, TCI began a complete rebuild of our community's cable TV system, replacing every piece of cable throughout town with fiber-optic trunk lines and new coaxial cable to each building it serves. By the spring of 1992 this project neared completion and, as part of a negotiated cable franchise renewal agreement, our local cable manager realigned and expanded the number of cable channels. Along with the PUBLIC ACCESS channel that had been available for many years, a new GOVERNMENT channel for city and county use was added, as was a new SCHOOL channel. For Alliance Public Schools, this presented a golden opportunity to keep the community informed about school-related programs, events, schedule changes -- the list of possibilities became endless. It was important to have useful information on this new SCHOOL channel as soon as it became available so viewers would include it as they reprogrammed TVs and VCRs after the channel realignment. New SCHOOL Channel As the high school media specialist, I took charge of making this SCHOOL channel operational. Dave Mapes, the local TCI manager, suggested we purchase a character generator to produce professional-quality messages and graphics. This same unit, I learned, incorporated a computer, which permitted unattended, timed VCR playback of videotapes on the new channel. I ordered an audio CD changer and contacted national vendors who supplied music CDs with a "buy-out," lifetime copyright provision. This provided the audio soundtrack for our new TV channel. A special VCR was also needed for the video display. The Alliance Board of Education promptly agreed to fund these components, which were ordered immediately. It was decided to locate the "head end" of the SCHOOL channel in the high school's library-media office. During the next two weeks, Mapes and his technicians installed a distribution system to feed programming from the school to the cable company for broadcast on the SCHOOL channel. The distribution system -- including all cables, connectors and labor -- was provided compliments of TCI Cablevision of Nebraska. With all the components in place by the final Saturday, there was just enough time to test everything prior to Monday morning when the SCHOOL channel was to begin broadcasting. What It Offers Our Community When cable viewers tuned into the realigned TV channels on Monday morning, April 20, 1992, they found three public access channels including "Alliance Public Schools, Channel 9." Initial programming on the SCHOOL Channel consisted of 10 screens welcoming viewers and encouraging them to consult this channel for school announcements. These included honoring school secretaries and aides during National Secretaries' Week, listing high school "Students of the Week" and reminders of the Board of Education meeting that week. In addition to messages, background music played from selected tracks off of a single CD. The first 10-screen cycle lasted just over two minutes and the music ran for about half an hour before repeating. A continuous calendar/clock at the bottom of the screen kept viewers informed of the date and exact time. Response from the community was immediate and very favorable. During our first year on the air, the SCHOOL channel expanded to upwards of 50 screens carrying a daily schedule of announcements and events from the present up to 35 days ahead. Now a K-12 color-coded calendar for the current and next month denotes regular school days, half-days, teacher inservice days, school holidays and parent-teacher conference days so families can plan ahead accordingly. School lunch menus are routinely displayed along with our High School "Students of the Week" and the "Renaissance Student of the Day." Daily screens have sported a "School Profile" recognizing professional staff, clerical and support personnel; an "Occupational Profile" detailing characteristics for each of some 120 occupations in Nebraska and even a "Thought for the Day." Other regular features are: agendas for Board of Education meetings; scholarships available to seniors; Advanced Placement test schedules; school activities; information for new and transfer student registration; and semester test schedules. Special announcements inform the community about early dismissals, school programs, plays and musicals being held; other messages request volunteers to help in various classes and schools. Student messages are also aired, covering things like class projects, dances and school meetings. In summer, announcements about school-sponsored athletic clinics, camps and summer classes are aired. Bells and Whistles Our music library for the SCHOOL Channel has also grown -- to more than a dozen CDs. Over 30 musical selections from six CDs play for nearly three hours before repeating.
With installation of a battery back-up unit to cover temporary power interruptions, the equipment has been running continuously since it was turned on in 1992. Once a month, the CD changer is given a few minutes rest while new selections are reprogrammed for that month. A variety of styles are played: instrumental and solo jazz, country, light classical, Dixie, pop, blues, new age, folk and seasonal music. When videotapes of school performances are to be shown, the date and time are announced in advance on the daily calendar. This means parents can now go to such school programs and sit back and enjoy the live performances instead of having to individually use their camcorders to tape the event. Parents seem to really appreciate this. No longer do they have to vie for the best taping location or set up and dismantle their equipment in a crowded auditorium. Instead they can set their VCR timers at home and make a copy from Channel 9 when the school-produced videotape of the event is replayed later. Their videos are of better quality as well, without crowd noise. In a community of our size (pop. 9,600), if someone misses the original airing, it is not uncommon for them to call and request the video be shown again. By simply reprogramming the school equipment, and announcing the additional playback time(s), tapes can be aired repeatedly. This is very important in Alliance as a large segment of our population is employed by the railroad and away from home on erratic schedules for days at a time. Channel 9 enables them to keep abreast of school news and information and to view school programs they would not otherwise be able to enjoy. Our SCHOOL channel also publicizes a schedule of the post-secondary classes available through Community Education and from two regional colleges. Since we are a rural area, where the nearest colleges are some 60 miles to the north and south, many residents rely upon off-campus college classes offered locally at our schools in the evenings and on weekends. Prospective students and those already working toward college degrees can watch the SCHOOL channel and find out when to register and where classes will be held. In case of last minute cancellations due to inclement weather, a special "crawl" message is inserted at the bottom of screens. The Community Education class schedule is shown repeatedly during the summer months when there are few school messages. Two Other Channels Serve Community Our second local access channel, the GOVERNMENT channel, is also utilized cooperatively in Alliance.
For example, City Council meetings are now held in the school administration building's board room and TCI wired another direct cable feed from that building to the cable company. Additional TV-broadcast equipment, purchased jointly by the schools and the city, was installed. Now cable subscribers can tune into this channel and view City Council meetings live. Our GOVERNMENT channel has also shown videotapes on topics such as fire prevention, automobile safety at railroad crossings and information about our local water system. At other times, three separate sources of audio and video information are carried on the GOVERNMENT channel simultaneously. The City of Alliance shares use of a computer with the Burlington Northern Railroad to display a split-message screen. On the top portion are local government announcements and civic messages of a non-commercial nature. The bottom part displays train schedules so railroad crew personnel who live in Alliance know when they will next be called out. The National Weather Service's 24-hour broadcast is used as the audio source for this display, providing up-to-the-minute forecasts as well as special weather statements, warnings and road conditions during severe weather. Our third channel, the PUBLIC ACCESS channel, has been put into use through the cooperative efforts of the school district and the state extension office in Alliance. A satellite dish, jointly purchased by the two entities, feeds selected programs to the community over this PUBLIC ACCESS channel. Extension service programs, for example, which originate some 375 miles away at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, may be fed from the satellite dish directly to the cable TV head end, and then rebroadcast into the community. Teleconferences, educational meetings and agricultural updates are brought directly to cable subscribers by this channel. These three local public-access cable TV channels are now an accepted, and expected, part of the regular viewing habits of local cable subscribers. Through the cooperative efforts of individuals, companies and government entities, Alliance constantly uses these channels to keep our citizens well informed about, and actively involved in, our community. Richard McCall first installed a separate closed-circuit TV system into each of the district's five schools 20 years ago, and has since promoted the use of TV and computers in the schools. E-mail: [email protected]
Products mentioned: Audio CD changer; JVC Professional Products Co., Elmwood Park, N.J., (800) JVC-5825 Quingen-112 Professional Character Generator; Quintar, Inc., Torrance, Calif., (800) 223-5231 Sony SVO-140 VCR; Sony Electronics, Park Ridge, N.J., (800) 472-SONY Tele-Communications, Inc. (TCI), headquarters, Littleton, Colo., (303) 730-8288
This article originally appeared in the 12/01/1995 issue of THE Journal.