BY NANCY HILLER
Since 1974—five years before C-SPAN got its start—Bloomington’s Community Access Television Services (CATS) has been telecasting live coverage of local government meetings. Concerned about a pressing public issue but can’t make it downtown? Thanks to CATS, you can watch proceedings of the Bloomington City Council, Ellettsville Town Council, Monroe County Plan Commission, public school boards, and many other local government bodies live on TV.
But CATS covers more than such staid proceedings. The network’s channels—3, 7, 12, 14, and 96 on Comcast, and 301 to 305 on Smithville Digital—also telecast international news, library-related programs, and a rich variety of local lectures and cultural events. In addition, CATS will provide free cameras, editing equipment, training, and dedicated time on its public channel to Monroe County citizens who want to express their opinion, show their artwork, or engage in advocacy.
Because of this accessibility, CATS has generated the occasional gloriously offbeat production. Most notable among these is J&B on the ROX, a series of cocktail-themed meditations on the absurdities of everyday life. ROX, as it’s now known, originated in 1992 when its editor, Bart Everson, was ordered by the Monroe County court system to work in CATS as public restitution for streaking across campus. Using the skills he learned through that experience, Everson devised his own program—one that WIRED magazine called the “best TV show in America” in 1995.
Based in a suite of subterranean offices at the Monroe County Public Library, CATS has a staff of about 15. Most are graduates of IU’s Radio and TV Department, for whom CATS offers a first experience of real-world telecommunications. Support for CATS comes primarily from cable franchise fees paid by the City of Bloomington, Monroe County, and the town of Ellettsville, as well as departmental funding from the Monroe County Public Library.
How can a single network with a modest budget produce such diverse programming? The secret lies in CATS’s incorporation as a dedicated constitutional forum, explains General Manager Michael White. Every program, including ROX, represents a carefully calibrated expression of First Amendment rights. Always respecting the legal limits to free speech, if occasionally pushing hard up against them, “CATS represents what members of the public want to say,” according to White. “It’s vital, it’s hilarious, it’s controversial. But above all, it’s local.”