April 2004

Out of the Loop: Channel 17 finding a niche

By David Feela

We’d arranged a breakfast meeting for 10 a.m. but by 10:15 the other party hadn’t shown up. I’m referring to co-owner and operator of local access Channel 17 Bill Beasley, a name I can easily remember because when we finally did meet he told me an interesting story about the old “Saturday Night Live” airings of “The Mr. Bill Show.”

It seems that he (not Mr. Bill) and Lan Degeneres (and yes, she’s cousin to the TV talk show host Ellen Degeneres) are in business together, piloting a local cable channel. Their venture has been available for Cortez cable customers since the summer of 2003.

This spring as tourists check into our motels, Channel 17's audience will expand. Just think of Channel 17 as an open invitation to explore our own backyard. You see, it broadcasts 24/7, so it’s like a virtual video hand reaching out of the television screen to welcome any stranger that steps up to the door.

I finally found Bill sitting at the opposite end of the restaurant with a mutual friend, local filmmaker David Bowyer. They were on their second cup of coffee, wondering what had become of me. The astonishment in our eyes must have looked to the waitress like a couple orders of poached eggs. It was a classic run-around, a case of relying on others to make the connections we should have made ourselves, so we laughed, shook hands and sat down together to talk.

I’d been invited to listen to the story of Channel 17, a purely local venture whose mission is to “showcase the area” for tourists who settle down for a night or two in our town. What I learned about the business is that close to two hours of programming plays continuously, and the content shifts every Friday.

The feature film – chopped into about 20-minute segments – comes from a Bowyer production titled “The San Juan Skyway,” an informational and scenic production of local attractions. Folded into the loop are commercials by area businesses, and close to 20 advertisers have signed on. I know that more than tourists are watching, because whenever the programming includes Bowyer’s “The Grand Adventure of the American Southwest,” students in the building where I teach say that they saw my face on television last night. I appear for about 60 seconds in that film, discussing the prospects of riding a mule into the Grand Canyon. I guess that makes me an asset, in a manner of speaking.

Since I live south of town, the only television signal I catch bounces off my rooftop aerial, runs along a thin length of coaxial cable and then into my television. Many people living outside the Cortez city limits probably receive their television the same way, and so I’m confident that much of Montezuma County has no knowledge of Channel 17. Their impressions, like my own, are a little fuzzy, but without cable that’s the kind of reception we get.

A fuller picture of Cortez and what its surrounding areas have to offer is what Channel 17 producers want to clarify, a sense that this corner of the Southwest is filled with other attractions besides Mesa Verde and the Narrow Gauge railroad in Durango.

Channel 17 would like to, in its small but persistent way, create programming that serves our business community. Strangely, though, Channel 17 is attracting an audience made up of more than the targeted tourists. Increasingly, a population of city-limiters is tuning in to see what’s up. They watch the loop, because Channel 17 is showing us something of our home. Nobody gets maimed, ridiculed, investigated, or shot – at least no one we haven’t first heard the gossip about. And there are faces on the screen we recognize, not because they have stars plastered on Hollywood Boulevard, but because we have met the people who live here and they are us.

Toward the end of our breakfast meeting, David Bowyer told me that Channel 17 plans to host a contest with a yet-tobe- determined prize for the best locally produced home video. I bring this up now because when I started out I also mentioned the old Mr. Bill shows, where animated pain became a ritual. You see, Bill Beasley had another secret. He said it was none other than Ellen Degeneres’s brother, Vance, who back in the late 1970s experimented in 8-mm film with a couple friends to produce what became nationally syndicated as the Mr. Bill clay animations.

That struck me as proof that not only has it always been a small world, but that life itself gets programmed as a loop.

Dave Feela is a teacher at Montezuma- Cortez High School.