On Wednesday, Baltimore will relaunch its publicly owned TV station, shifting its focus from broadcasts of government meetings to CharmTV, a showcase for city restaurants, businesses and neighborhoods. City leaders see an opportunity to counteract negative perceptions of Baltimore, but with the change come questions about significantly increased spending on an untested business model — without benefit of data to show how many people watch the station.
An extensive publicity campaign from the Mayor's Office of Cable and Communications promises a fresh slate of four locally produced prime-time programs equal in quality to those seen on the Food Network or HGTV, showcasing "all that is proud, inspiring and authentic" about Baltimore food, nightlife, neighborhoods and history. Station management hopes the shows will ultimately result in an operation that's self-sustaining, if not profitable, through the kind of "underwriting, sponsorships and donations seen at public television stations," according to General Manager Tonia Lee.
"The relaunch of Channel 25 as CharmTV will tell a positive story about many of the great things that make Baltimore a premier city," Mayor Stephanie-Rawlings Blake said in a statement to The Baltimore Sun. "We know Baltimore is a quirky, edgy and fun place, but the true heart and soul of our city is not always told. No other public access channel is being utilized to positively brand a city the same way we are preparing to do here in Baltimore. This is an opportunity to tell our story in new and exciting ways."
Though Rawling-Blake had announced in 2010 that she was going to cut $700,000 from the budget of the office that runs the station, the budget has grown by 73 percent the past two years, to $1.56 million for fiscal year 2015; taxpayers and subscribers to Comcast, which carries the station, foot the bill.
That history and the major programming changes — the format will shift from 90 percent transparency coverage of meetings and hearings to only 50 percent — raise questions among some about the purpose of government access TV and how Baltimore's channel compares nationally.
"When the mayor came in, the station was supposed to be financially self-sufficient within a year, and now they're giving it over a million dollars?" said Marta Mossburg, visiting fellow at the Maryland Public Policy Institute. "Unless they can quantify it, that makes no sense at all at a time when we're struggling to pay pensions and health insurance for city employees and retirees."
Lee says CharmTV will capture the "essence of Baltimore." At a launch party last week, speakers discussed projecting the opposite of an "uninhabitable wasteland" (as Stephen Colbert recently termed Baltimore) or "The Wire."
Lee, a former executive at Turner Broadcasting and the Weather Channel who took over as general manager of TV25 last July, has put together four programs that have already generated enthusiasm among some in city government.
The half-hour shows that will premiere Wednesday and Thursday are: "Tasty Travels," featuring events planner Kate Beck exploring the Baltimore food scene; "Born in Baltimore," a look at local businesses hosted by Baltimore actor David DeBoy; "Out & About," with veteran TV reporter Kuren Redmond checking out local trends; and "My Town," a journey through the city's neighborhoods.
Six to eight episodes of each will be made in this first cycle, and station management will then decide how to proceed on a show-by-show basis based on feedback.
Only portions of the four pilots were shown during the launch party in the channel's stylish suite of offices at Market Place, next to Power Plant Live. But a segment in "My Town" on Morgan Park, the neighborhood immediately east of Morgan State University, explored race, history, segregation and community in an informed and engaging way. A "Tasty Travels" piece featured production values on a par with those of national cable channels.
City Council Vice President Edward L. Reisinger, who represents South Baltimore, thinks such programs will attract more viewers.
"In the past, I think it was dry," Reisinger says of TV25. "They showed some of the liquor board and zoning board hearings and City Council hearings. … There was nothing to grab you."
There is support in city government for a let's-celebrate-Baltimore strategy, long a priority for Rawlings-Blake. Councilman Brandon M. Scott, who represents parts of East and Northeast Baltimore, said the new programming would be a tool to give the city more control over Baltimore's reputation.
"To me, it's a great thing," Scott says. "One of our biggest discouragers is that we let the outside world determine our image."
City Council President Bernard "Jack" Young, who has sparred with Rawlings-Blake over the channel in the past, is "encouraged" by the changes coming to CharmTV, according to his spokesman Lester Davis.
"He also understands their desire to generate a revenue stream," Davis added.
The programming does come at a cost. Baltimore's mayoral-run channel is one of the richest government-access stations in the nation, funded like those in larger cities like Houston and Chicago, according to Bunny Riedel, executive director of American Community Television, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving public, educational and government-access channels.
And analysts say that without credible data showing how many people are watching, the prospect of generating revenue is murky.