Denver Open Media and the Open Media Project: Public Access TV 2.0

Denver Open Media's Tony Shawcross has taken the principles of Wikipedia and applied them to local public-access TV. The concept is gaining traction nationally with the Open Media Project, public-access management software developed in-house.
Delve into the video vault at Denver Open Media, the city's public-access television entity, and you'll find a wider range of voices than any other network on local television.

Take Sacha Heppell. He fell in love with Denver Open Media (DOM) the minute he entered the building on 7th Avenue and Kalamath Street in 2005 as a freshman in high school. "When I walked in, it was like 'Oh, my gosh! I can actually use this gear?'" he remembers.

Heppell not only started using it, he's spun it into a career, producing on-demand videos for Comcast locally and working in production in New York for two years. He says there was no other facility in the city he could have developed a skill set while in high school.

He also credits Denver Open Media with his development as a human being. "I was dealing with my sexuality," says Heppell. "At Denver Open Media, they were so accepting of who I was. It gave me a place where I could go and be myself."

Heppell has since come out as openly gay to his conservative family and the world at large. He also unsuccessfully auditioned for the Denver Broncos cheerleading squad, a gender-barrier-breaking feat that garnered him scads of press and viral-video fame. Now he's running Socialloud (formerly Uzeke) a popular program at DOM for teens who want to learn performance and production skills.

"I owe a lot to them," says Heppell.

A new era for public-access TV in Denver Tony Shawcross works with a student on video.

In 2005, the plug was pulled on Denver Community Television, which operated on a charter with $500,000 in annual funding from the City and County of Denver and Public, Educational and Government (PEG) fees collected by Comcast.

At the time, Tony Shawcross was producing videos for nonprofits with Deproduction and put out a bid to take over the public-access channels with "a Wikipedia-like model" in 2005 and landed the contract the following year.

"The model was forced on us because there was no funding," explains Shawcross, now Executive Director of Denver Open Media and its umbrella organization, Open Media Foundation. "Wikipedia is a community-run entity. The community does all of the work. We wanted to do the same thing."

To this end, there are no longer staffers to help with production like the old Denver Community Television days. Production became a do-it-yourself operation as people had to start directing their own programs in the studio and handling everything  themselves.

DOM's scheduling runs on software dubbed the Open Media Project, developed in-house over the past five years. The shows are then broadcast locally on three channels on Comcast: 56, 57 and 219. Shawcross describes the "tiered" model: Producers use the Open Media Project software to schedule their programming on the lower tiers, then viewers vote the programs up to the top tier (channel 57). The system is completely automated, from the scheduling of shows on the lower tiers to the tabulation of votes and subsequent elevation of the most popular content.

DOM gets zero funding from the city, but it does use city-owned equipment free of charge. DOM's facility in the Art District on Santa Fe includes studios, classrooms, computer labs and offices for fellow nonprofit media organizations like KGNU Community Radio  and the Denver Voice newspaper.

As the umbrella organization for DOM, the Open Media Foundation, a  501(c)3 organization, offers nonprofits cost-effective video production, as well as website development and graphic design, and has contracts to provide video services and online distribution channels to the state legislature with The Colorado Channel. and -- starting in July -- the Colorado Supreme Court.

Open Media Project: A quixotic, big vision

The Open Media Foundation also developed the aforementioned crowdsource-based software for public access channels, the Open Media Project, developed with funding from a 2008 Knight Foundation News Challenge grant.

After testing it with six public-access stations through 2010, Shawcross realized it was time to start over. "The only way to make the software work was to rebuild it as a software as a service in the cloud," he says. That's exactly what happened after a year of fundraising and another year of coding, the Open Media Project officially launched this year. The first customer is BETV in Berkeley, California, slated for launch by the end of this month.

Arielle Krnich, Interim Executive Director of Berkeley Community Media, says that moving away from a manual system to the Open Media Project was first and foremost a reaction to a budget crunch. Instead of a $35,000 salary, it's a $6,000 annual subscription, she explains. "It's a no-brainer."

But it's not entirely a dollar-driven decision. "It's less about saving money than it is about focusing my staff in directions that are going to help the organization," says Krnich. "I feel it's the best decision I've made as Executive Director -- for the station, the members and the staff."

Shawcross describes his "quixotic, big vision" of using the Open Media Project as a way to get this enormous amount of content out there in a big way. By aggregating literally millions of hours of content online and crowdsourcing out the selection the best shows, the cream of the public-access could be showcased on a national network.

"Our goal on the public-access side is to create a new network," says Shawcross, elaborating on his "Wikipedia of TV" concept. There's a definite value here, he adds. "These are perspectives that are missing from the mainstream media."

He says that a given viewer is only going to be interested in a fraction of the 10,000 shows in the Denver Open Media Archive, including himself. "I'm only interested in a small percentage of them, but the best of them are better than anything I watch on mainstream media -- period."

But nobody is seeing even the best shows, because few public-access producers are tech savvy. "They aren't even getting out there on YouTube," says Shawcross, describing "outdated" methods dominated by DVDs and snail mail.

To this end, the Open Media Project system automatically delivers the shows to an online YouTube-like channel. Shawcross notes that there are about 1,000 public access TV stations in the country -- maybe 10 million shows. "It's a lot of content that isn't getting out there at all."

Word is spreadingA backstage view of Denver Open Media's set.

Last year the Open Media Foundation operated on a $1.75 million budget, nearly tripling from about $600,000 in 2009.

Shawcross attributes the growth to growth in earned income from production and other services -- "Word has been spreading in the nonprofit world" -- describing the Open Media Project as another potential catalyst. "It's definitely our biggest opportunity for budget growth," he says.

The biggest hurdle: The public-access charter with the City and County of Denver and Comcast is currently up for renewal, a contract spanning public-access channels, an educational channel  for Denver Public Schools and two channels covering city government. All six are currently broadcast in standard definition.

Darryn Zuehlke, GM for Denver Media Services, is handling contract negotiations for the city and says he doesn't expect there to be much change.

"One of the highest priorities for the city is to preserve public-access TV in Denver," Zuehlke says. "This is about First Amendment rights that are important to the city and the community."

Shawcross has been pushing for a conversion to high definition, holding that standard definition will be obsolete in a few years.

Zuehlke says he expects that only one of three Denver Open Media channels to get the upgrade to HD. "It's a compromise," says Zuehlke.

A few last words from Sister Who

Sister Who, a.k.a. Denver NeVaar, a self-described "sacred clown," has been a presence on public-access TV in Denver since 1992, offering his thoughts on the big questions, his face painted white and purple, clad in a nun's habit and a shiny, open-chested black blouse.

Sister Who is closing in on his 300th episode of Sister Who Presents. "It's my contribution to the world being a better place," he says. "When people ask me what the show's about, I say it's anything and everything related to spirituality. It's not going to be a superficial discussion."

He commends DOM for keeping public-access television afloat in Denver, but says he misses some of the flexibility and diversity of its predecessors. He says higher fees have made it more difficult for many members and content producers, especially the elderly and disabled.

Nevertheless, Sister Who is a firm believer in the power of public-access TV. "It is a social-pressure release valve," he says. "If somebody wants to get heard, they can go and make a show. It's like the off-off-off-Broadway of video. No one is going to tell you no."

Read more articles by Eric Peterson.

Eric is a Denver-based tech writer and guidebook wiz. Contact him here.
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