Scottsdale's City Cable Channel 11 has dropped two long-running programs produced by outside entities and will turn to municipal employees first to appear on camera as part of a revised policy.
The policy, effective Aug. 1, emphasizes that Channel 11's "top priority is broadcast City Council meetings and other public meetings of general interest." So those looking to livelier fare - bass fishing shows come to mind - will probably need to take their TV remote controls elsewhere.
As part of the new policy, the city cancelled the monthly "Scottsdale Republic Forum" and monthly shows produced by the nonprofit Leaders in Nonpartisan Knowledge-Based Solutions, or LINKS, which receives city funding, Scottsdale spokesman Mike Phillips said Friday.
City officials were in the process of revising Channel 11's policy in July when local civic activist Susan Wood requested permission to produce her own program on local issues. Wood said she made her request because she believed there was bias in talk shows now airing, and that she could present a different viewpoint.
Future programs produced by, or who feature on-camera appearances by third parties, will come under revised guidelines, Phillips said. Foremost is that if a city person can fulfill the on-camera role or some other task, then such persons will be on Channel 11.
The city may make a determination that noncity "talent," as they say in television, is needed, or that an outside entity can produce something better or more relevant than the city can, he said.
Unbiased election forums produced in part by noncity personnel will still be allowed. Both the Tribune and Republic host such forums each year.
LINKS executive director Judy Crider said Friday she was disappointed with the city's decision, but that she understood it, even though it was difficult to do so.
"I think I understand that they didn't have a policy that was firm, and the need to create a policy that reflected the purpose of their TV channel," she said.
Crider said she didn't think LINKS was presenting controversial material, but, as their name implies, critical information in a nonpartisan format. It's unfortunate that the matter became politicized, she said.
"I understand what they were doing," Crider said. "They didn't want to have 'The Gong Show.'"
By definition, government being in the media business produces First Amendment challenges. The amendment's first five words forbidding the squelching of free speech, "Congress shall make no law," has been applied by the courts to the states and localities, and certainly to the government's own communication instruments as it does to any private ones.
And yet it's a letdown to know that the city decided to, in the main, keep most anyone who isn't a government employee from producing programming on Channel 11.
The opposite - letting most anyone willing to pay a reasonable fee for use of the production facilities - would have posed an administrative headache for city officials. Who gets on and when would be difficult for a channel with a mission to present a lengthy menu of public meetings and only 24 broadcast hours per day, said Phillips, the city spokesman.
"Unlike newsprint, it's a limited resource," he said.
But a bit of a free-for-all would make for great television, drawing more viewers and perhaps engaging more residents in local civic affairs.
Yes, some of these privately produced shows would have been put together by City Hall's more vocal critics. But others could be organized by people who think Scottsdale's generally on the right track, as a recent Scottsdale Area Chamber of Commerce poll said 55 percent of residents believe.
Barring violations of federal communications regulations - no Janet Jackson or George Carlin-like behavior - it would have been a quite varied open marketplace of ideas, indeed. And the city could issue disclaimers before and after each one with legal language saying their content may not necessarily reflect the views of the city of Scottsdale.
Then again, America's Founders and Framers weren't thinking about speech through government channels (broadcast or otherwise) when they wrote the First Amendment. They were talking about private speech about the government, which they guaranteed to be unfettered.
Maybe it's best that "The Gong Show" isn't going to be on Channel 11, or "Wayne's World," or dueling protesters and stalwarts.
The freest, most robust speech about City Hall is best expressed without City Hall holding its finger on the proverbial mute button.