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A cable controversy: Fayetteville awards public-access contract to a new organization.

The controversy over public-access television in Fayetteville may have reached a climax.

On March 17, the Fayetteville Board of Directors awarded the contract to operate cable Channel 4 to Access 4 Fayetteville. The non-profit organization will provide public-access services for the Warner Cable system.

Access 4 Fayetteville was formed in January. Twelve members of the Fayetteville Open Channel board, including FOC President Marion Orton, had resigned two months earlier to organize Access 4 Fayetteville.

Orton's resignation came during an intense battle over who should operate the public-access channel. The channel had been controlled since going on the air in March 1980 by FOC, a membership organization with a board elected by its members.

The controversy intensified in September, according to Orton, when several FOC members began using the channel as a forum to talk about "everything imaginable."

A videotape of Orton addressing the FOC staff was shown on the public-access channel without her approval. Orton was incensed about the telecast, which she felt unfairly portrayed her and the FOC's collaboration with the city of Fayetteville's cable administrator, Shea Crain.

Critics say Orton wanted to give Crain hiring and firing power over FOC staffers. Some FOC members viewed this as city control of public speech.

"We were trying to determine how to structure our staff," Orton counters. "I talked about several possibilities. I said, 'One possibility is for the cable administrator to supervise.'"

The possibility of the city operating the channel and possibly preventing citizens from airing negative comments particularly upset an FOC producer. The producer edited Orton's taped conversation with the staff and added captions that, according to Orton, had little to do with what she said.

"The tape is bad, and the audio is bad," Orton says. "You can't hear what I am saying."

Still, Orton resigned as FOC president and was replaced by Jimmy Gribble.

The city then issued a request for proposals to provide access services. FOC's contract was due to expire March 31.

FOC and Access 4 Fayetteville applied to operate the channel.

A Vote For Access 4

Local politics at Fayetteville has become increasingly heated. The rapid growth of northwest Arkansas has put a strain on the city's ability to provide services. There currently is a campaign to replace the city manager form of government with an elected mayor possessing wide-ranging powers.

A committee composed of city employees voted in favor of Access 4 Fayetteville and sent the recommendation to the city's cable television board.

"|The cable television board~ refused to make a decision because it had become such a controversial issue," Gribble says.

The cable television board thus handed the hot potato to the city board.

The city board's March 17 decision followed 45-minute presentations by FOC and Access 4 Fayetteville. Board members voted to allow Access 4 Fayetteville to produce public-access programs through the end of the year with a possible two-year renewal.

"Some saw this as a blatant attempt to silence a disagreeable organization," says Martin Yoffe, the FOC founding director who now is coordinator of cable television services for the Dade County Public Schools in Miami. "Of the two applicants, only FOC has any operational experience, any members, any tape library, any equipment, any employees and any building from which to operate.

"Access 4 Fayetteville has only a board of directors agreeable to the city and no building to operate from until the city provides one in September. Therefore, the net effect of the city's action is to effectively suspend the activities of the access channel and inhibit public discourse on a controversial ballot issue |changing the form of city government~ until after the May election."

But Crain expects a smooth transition when Access 4 Fayetteville takes over April 1.

"They'll go on the air that evening, but they probably won't be up to speed until May 1," Crain says.

Access 4 Fayetteville will be in a temporary location until Sept. 1, when it is expected to move to a permanent home on Rock Street in downtown Fayetteville.
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Title Annotation:Across Arkansas
Author:Taylor, Tim
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Mar 30, 1992
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