Mayor Byron W. Brown is on camera a lot.
At news conferences, at meetings of his administration’s accountability panel and on television shows about what’s happening in the city.
The television appearances are made possible not by local news outlets, but by the city’s government access channel.
But while a videographer attends every one of Brown’s news conferences, and a member of his staff hosts “Inside City Hall,” where the mayor talks about city programs, a group of independent producers who work on shows for the city’s separate public access channel say the government channel gets the best equipment, and they are left with inferior tools.
The city’s three television operations – governmental, public access and educational – are headquartered in the Apollo Media Center on Jefferson Avenue, a bright, clean former movie theater that appears to be well-maintained.
“At the Apollo, we call it ‘the mayor’s channel,’ ” said independent producer Eric Wilson, referring to Channel 22, which is reserved for government use.
The mayor, who says the government channel shows taxpayers how their money is being spent by letting them know what city government is doing, is aware of the producers’ concerns.
“The quality of programming is really in large part what the producers have the capability of doing,” Brown said.
Members of the mayor’s staff downplayed the quality of the equipment they use. But they also concede that with few exceptions, training for independent producers on using the new studio – which is used nearly exclusively by the government and education channels, rather than for public access – has not happened, two years after it opened.
“They told us originally it was going to be for everybody,” said Wilson, who said he has had a generally positive experience at the Apollo. “They’re afraid something will get broken or whatnot.”
The city believes that public access should be produced by members of the public and that the newer studio requires a deeper skill-set.
“That is an advanced-level application,” said Thomas M. Tarapacki, city director of telecommunications, utilities and franchises.
“Some people are professional or semiprofessional producers who do a lot of this stuff either for a living or to make extra money, and some people are basically amateurs who only come in to shoot their public access show,” Tarapacki said. “Those are the kind of people who would have difficulty transitioning into that studio.”
Members of the Brown administration have said the Apollo is unique in Erie County and that the city offers members of the public the opportunity – and a studio – to record and produce shows that they couldn’t do in other municipalities.
Apollo staff members also said they grant special requests to use the new studio, but several producers said they haven’t been able to use it.
“They don’t allow you to use the expensive equipment,” said producer Marlon Redmond, who has purchased his own equipment and no longer has to rely on the resources at the Apollo. “It’s hard to edit things and do things. The equipment is constantly breaking down.”
The city said there are about 95 active producers, and with so many people using the equipment, it tends to wear faster.
Other producers echoed Redmond’s concerns.
“The building is really not being used right,” said Murray Holman, who produces shows at the Apollo. “We can’t get in there to do what we need to do, to advance ourselves.”
Independent producers also said that they are not allowed to take the cameras outside the Apollo to shoot video.
The Apollo’s operations are funded from franchise fees from customers of the city’s cable provider, Time Warner, that pass through the city’s general fund.
Kamau R.E. Fields, an independent producer, said he likes the mayor but that too many of the Apollo’s resources go to the government channel.
“It’s a situation that’s crying out for improvement,” Fields said.
Channel 20, which is reserved for public access, was down for four weeks this summer as the city waited for a new server.
Tarapacki said the city had to follow procurement laws and use a proper bidding process to replace it.
While government and educational programs have access to a newer, more modern studio, the public access programs are filmed on an older set with black curtains, a table and fake plants.
The older studio was supposed to get an upgrade, but the money was diverted for the new server, Tarapacki said.
Wilson, who produces three shows, said repairs to the equipment are slow, which impacts how much the producers can do, because so many are waiting for just a few pieces of equipment.
“It’s like having one car and 12 people driving it,” he said.