Antonio Villaraigosa was out of town again on March 11, his second whirlwind trip to Washington, D.C., in two weeks, as layoff notices were issued for eight city workers at L.A. CityView Channel 35.
The eight represent a tiny portion of the 1,000 or more city workers who could lose their jobs in the coming weeks, but their job losses speak to the murky chess game under way by Villaraigosa and the Los Angeles City Council to shift money from lesser-known, if valued, services to belatedly patch the gaping budget hole.
Channel 35 is fully supported by cable-franchise fees, not taxpayer monies, and the station uses just part of the millions that flow from private Los Angeles cable companies to City Hall coffers. Yet last year, Villaraigosa and the City Council began a major raid on the station, slashing CityView's operating budget for fiscal year 2009-10 from $1.2 million to $200,000 and wiping out the Emmy Award–winning show L.A. Roundtable, hosted by respected broadcaster Dave Bryan, an expert on local government.
Operated by the city Information Technology Agency and staffed by full-time employees and freelancers, L.A. CityView covers City Council meetings, town-hall gatherings and city-commission hearings — and produces public-service programming often focused on underserved groups watching at home, such as the disabled and the elderly.
Paul Suchecki, a freelance writer, producer and cameraman at the station, says that after last year's cuts, one freelance cameraman was forced to live in his van. Recently, another co-worker began considering the possibility of selling his home and leaving Los Angeles. In a frank assessment of the fiscal implosion in his small division, Tony Ighani, CityView's station manager, says, "I would give up my job myself, if it were to save some of my employees" — long-term staffers whom he describes as "regents of outreach to the city."
But City Hall is draining the cable franchise-fee money from Ighani's small outfit to feed a general-fund deficit that has grown under the City Council and Villaraigosa to $212 million this year, and which, without dramatic intervention, will balloon to$700 million or more by the end of fiscal year 2010-11, when estimates project City Hall overspending by $385 million to $485 million.
Ighani says the cuts that hit his public-TV team are "not something out of the ordinary. Channel 35 is just one of those stories amongst many." But as he watches the cuts spread, he says, "When you work with people day in and day out, it's very difficult to see that be destroyed."
Speaking openly at a time when some city employees are afraid to talk to the press about such cuts, believing that if they say something off-message, they too could be targeted for layoffs, Ighani says of his staff, "Most of them have children and family." And he can't help but note that City Hall's decision to trim the production staff to eight leaves barely more than the minimum crew — six people — required to cover a routine Los Angeles City Council meeting.
Ighani believes that "the City Council is really trying its hardest." He does not compare CityView's task with more critical municipal services, like policing. "But what we do," he adds, "allows people who normally wouldn't understand what the city is doing to get a glimpse of what the city is doing — or not doing. It's really one of the main lifelines between the constituency and the government. In a world of sound bites, it's very useful if you can listen in and get both sides of a discussion."
Westside public-safety activist Monica Harmon goes further, saying that watching on CityView the L.A. City Council debates and actions is critical to being an informed Los Angeles resident. "You get to see what they are actually doing for our city," explains Harmon, "which, the consensus is, is absolutely nothing."
Launched in 1989, L.A. CityView can be seen in 2 million Los Angeles households. Its programming includes C-SPAN–style coverage of highly influential but often low-visibility city commissions such as the board of the Community Redevelopment Agency. CityView's digital recordings of every word said at these meetings are often available through lacityview.org, and are valued by activists and neighborhood groups.
Until recently, the station also produced programs such as Disability Forum, Inside the LAPD and the animal-shelter adoption service Home Shopping Petwork. But after last year's devastating $1 million budget cut, CityView axed almost all such shows — including Bryan's Roundtable, which beat the big L.A. TV news stations in 2009 to win a Best Talk Show Series local Emmy. Westside City Councilman Paul Koretz says, "There has been no policy discussion of whether or not Channel 35 should be downsized" — despite the huge cuts.
Today, as a result of the axed funds, the only programs playing on this public-TV station are financed by Los Angeles city departments that have extra cash: "Airports, Water and Power and the Department of Beaches and Harbors — they have the money," Suchecki says. City budget–cutters pulled the plug on those who don't "have the money, like a [program about a] library exhibit, or Disability Forum."
Much of this small-audience programming benefits the needy. "We're not trying to command a really large market share," explains Jody Zucker, president of Project Chicken Soup, a nonprofit group that cooks and delivers food to homebound Angelenos who have AIDS. As he notes, when a segment about Project Chicken Soup appeared on Aging in L.A., it helped bring in the "Jewish grandmothers" who prepare many of the organization's meals.
"It's some of the only publicity we've ever gotten," notes Zucker, whose day job is weighty: He's senior vice president and general counsel for Warner Bros. Television. He also praises L.A. CityView for the high-quality video segment about Project Chicken Soup that Channel 35's staff created from Aging in L.A., and which now appears on Chicken Soup's Web site and YouTube.
So far, Aging in L.A. is clinging to life, but Disability Forum was shut down, Ighani says.
Judy Dugan is research director for Consumer Watchdog, which fights for the rights of consumers and taxpayers. "Public-access channels are uniquely powerless," she explains. "They have small audiences for programming that [those viewers] can't get elsewhere. The service they're getting from [CityView] is highly valuable to [viewers], even though they're in small numbers."
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Although Dugan concedes that these budget cuts are not the same as, say, the state reducing funding for prenatal care, she questions City Hall's wisdom in targeting "a dedicated space" that big cable interests are mandated to support.
The city's Information Technology Agency is also taking a hit, paring 50 jobs from its 600-member department, an 8.3 percent reduction. That includes the eight jobs being wiped out at CityView, a far more sizable, 40 percent reduction for the station.
Though many Angelenos aren't aware of the existence of CityView, its gavel-to-gavel coverage of the often controversial L.A. City Council is valuable to many, including former Daily News editor-turned-blogger-activist Ron Kaye.
"It's on right now," says Kaye, reached by phone. "I get messages: 'You've got to see what's happening now!' " After all, as Kaye notes of those citizens who wait for hours to appear before the City Council during its public-comment period, "Why would you waste a whole day and spend a minute or two to say something that no one wants to hear, when you can see what the bastards are up to, on Channel 35?"