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HISD May Leave City's Public TV Station Amid Fears That Nobody's Watching

A view from the 1990s when HISD TV was funded to the max and people watched TV, not streaming videos.
A view from the 1990s when HISD TV was funded to the max and people watched TV, not streaming videos.
HISD TV archives

What if you put on a show, with heart and soul, with pizzazz, with stretching your declining resources as far as they could go - and nobody showed up to watch it?

That's the situation the Houston ISD administration has reluctantly concluded it is in as regards the television channel it has been operating on one of the City of Houston's public access channels since 1986. As a result, the district will probably give notice this summer that it will not renew its contract in another year and a half.

"We know that the current staffing doesn't allow us to do the kind of content for production that would be needed to make it a viable channel and we're not even sure it's the way people watch today," said Tiffany Davila-Dunne, HISD's chief communications officer. "Viewership habits are changing."

Representatives of the city and HISD have met in recent days but were unable to come up with any additional funding sources that make it feasible for the district to continue its TV channel, according to Davila-Dunne.

With scintillating shots like this, why wouldn't kids and their parents be watching?
With scintillating shots like this, why wouldn't kids and their parents be watching?
HISD TV live screen grab

"It's a channel that once was a very viable channel. There's no viewership data or analytics. It's basically kind of a black box," said Davila-Dunne who made a presentation in January about the TV station to the school board, pointing out the difficulties of producing a high-caliber product considering the staffing cuts and spending limitations that have occurred in recent years.

Originally, HISD partnered with the University of Houston to broadcast college courses at night. It broadcast 12-15 hours a day. It started with a staff of nearly 15 full and part-time employees and ran a homework hot line and a half hour magazine show.

By the 1990s the staff had grown to more than 20 full and part-time employees and added a monthly show for the board president and a Spanish language show.

In 2004, the channel moved to 24 hours a day broadcasts, while at the same time, because of automation, the staff was reduced to 14 full time employees. In 2009 monthly board meetings were broadcast live on HISD-TV where (when it worked) reporters and the public could watch the proceedings in the comfort of their offices or homes without making the trek to the Hattie Mae White administration building.

 

Since 2010, central office budget cuts reduced the staff to ten, followed by further consolidation of departments that reduced the TV production staff to four.

"I started to access the channel when I first came in," Davila-Dunne said. After an in-house analysis, she proposed these options: keep it going by continuing to patch things together the best way they could, staff it to the level they could handle longer shows, find a partner or abandon it. As the district moved through the budget process with its normal tradeoffs, teacher raises and other concerns seemed more important, she said.

People want to watch shows on their own time schedules these day, Davila-Dunne said. That means it's probably more effective for them to go to the HISD website which archives meetings as well as produces short three-minute videos on Vimeo of school and district events.

Davila-Dunne said HISD would hope some of its programming could be included on the city's channel or the channel Houston Community College has.

Janice Evans, chief policy officer for the city of Houston, said that the city will be seeking a new vendor if HISD bows out. Texas Southern University had previously indicated interest in taking over that channel.

There was some hope that the school district could secure PEG (Public, Educational and Government) funding, but Houston has never given that out to school districts or community colleges as is done in other cities in the country, Davila-Dunne said.

Evans said that "PEG funding is going away in a few years so that's not going to solve their problem long term anyway."

Evans said the district would probably be able to get some of its programming on other channels, including the city's own. But as for the channel itself:

"We want to maintain that station, the availability of that station whether it's HISD or somebody else that's operating it. We do want to maintain that, the fourth public access channel," Evans said.


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