City Government A Blur

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"What's wrong with the picture?"
L A Wood, Berkeley Voice, January 18, 1996

"What's wrong with the picture?" is perhaps the most frequently asked question concerning the city of Berkeley's fledgling public access cable station, Channel 25. Well over a year ago, Berkeley Community Media was awarded the city contract to operate the Berkeley's public access facility. BTV, as it has become known, has been responsible for broadcasting educational and community-generated programming as well as the station's own governmental coverage.

The quality of community programming varies greatly as one might expect and the promised educational access has not, as yet, been plugged in. However, it is BTV's governmental broadcasts and rebroadcasts which have been unexpectedly fuzzy and which require closer inspection.

Since November 1994 a select number of city government meetings have been augmented by a video broadcast. The public record, which historically has included both written and oral testimony, now also includes a visual record as well. Unfortunately, there's something seriously wrong with this Berkeley picture.

Those who are unfamiliar with video production may not realize the importance placed by the film industry on broadcast quality. This is critical to every facet of film and television. In fact, broadcast quality is something that today's audience has come to take for granted. These increasingly sophisticated viewers now demand a high level of image clarity, or resolution, to just hold their attention.

Image resolution can sometimes be enhanced or seriously degraded in the many steps of video production depending on choices in the equipment used for broadcasting and recording. However, nothing is more basic to achieving a high-resolution image than the choice of the recording format.

Resolution is primarily measured by horizontal scan lines. Each line provides little bits of image. When condensed, these dots go to form the overall picture. The more image scan lines, the clearer and more defined the final transmission.

A professional cable transmission tape format is at the least Super VHS, which has a capacity of 400 scan lines or more. Currently, Berkeley's format for governmental broadcasts and re-broadcast is only VHS, which is limited to about 240 lines of resolution. This is where BCM begins to lose the picture.

The recording equipment in Berkeley's City Council Chambers is known in the video trades as c.c.t.'s or closed circuit television cameras. These VHS security type cameras are barely comparable to most home video recording systems. This means that before the City Council cameras are even turned on, the image has already been compromised. The problem, however, does not stop there.

As with all video transfer, there is a generational loss in the resolution. In other words, when a governmental meeting is taped and a dub or replay copy is rendered from the original, the resolution loss is about 20 percent. At this point the color and picture start to become unstable. A look at BTV rebroadcasts clearly reveals this generational loss and more.

It should also be noted that Hi-8 tape formats can produce up to 400 lines of resolution, but are severely impacted by generational loss. In addition, Hi-8 is plagued by higher costs for transfer to other formats as well as tape instability. It is no wonder that the industry's baseline standard is Super-VHS.

Now at the City Clerk's office, Berkeley citizens can request a video copy of recorded government meetings. Since the clerk's "dub" copy is only in a VHS format, subsequent third generation copies are critically impacted. Citizens requesting a video record from the clerk are subjected to tape copies that suffer nearly a 50 percent reduction in resolution. At this point, the public record is a blur.

Since the city of Berkeley's first experiments with public access in the early 1970s, many of its citizens have become rightfully suspicious about public access television. Why it has taken so long for Berkeley to regain public access TV? Why was so little allocated for set up costs for Berkeley's governmental broadcasts? It does seem somewhat ironic that governmental access has become the centerpiece of BTV.

To some, Berkeley's public access television history reads like a mystery novel. This "who done it" has left many Berkeleyans wondering where the money has been hidden. Our governmental sub-standard broadcasts only begs the idea of public participation while hedging on a real commitment to invest effectively, now, and for the future. Who's surprised?

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