A Channel That Shines a Light on Fairfax

Laurie Campbell, left, a graphic artist, goes over a show with Valerie Bey, a producer.
Laurie Campbell, left, a graphic artist, goes over a show with Valerie Bey, a producer. (Photos By James M. Thresher -- The Washington Post)

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By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 17, 2006

You may not know much about your neighbor. But if you happen to be channel surfing and come across Channel 16, you might discover that his taxes are way overdue.

This embarrassing bit of public information about dozens of residents and business owners is flashed across Fairfax television screens for a half-hour at 4 p.m. Thursdays during "Tax Evaders," the county's low-budget, taxes-only version of "America's Most Wanted."

"This simply will not do!" intones the narrator before names and addresses roll across the screen.

They're among the tidbits offered by the county's government access cable channel, which shines a light on Fairfax residents, history, public officials and services.

"One of the problems a local government has is getting out information to its citizens," said Gail Condrick, director of the Department of Cable Communications and Consumer Protection, which oversees Channel 16. "Citizens get to see a government as it unfolds. We're saying, this is what we do with your tax dollars, these are the services we provide."

The programming is unedited. It includes the biweekly Board of Supervisors meetings, which can stretch from 9 a.m. until midnight, and town meetings hosted by board members for constituents in their district. And it's wonky. Viewers can learn about the county's Hoarding Task Force or the Pandemic Flu Business Summit, or watch a primer on emergency preparedness.

There's no "American Idol" here. County officials who aren't familiar public faces get to show off their command of the arcana that go into delivering services that many residents take for granted, such as the state-of-the-art communications and emergency operations center under construction in western Fairfax.

But it's not in simplified language. "Co-location and interoperability will serve us well," Deputy County Executive Robert A. Stalzer said during an episode of "Fairfax Prepares," which is scheduled to run this month.

People watch, though it's hard to say how many; there is no accurate system for determining the number. Channel 16 is available to households that receive cable service through Cox Communications or Comcast, the county's two main providers.

Viewers who tuned in through their computers over the past year logged on to Channel 16 at a record high of 2,690 times in December. The lowest number of hits, 1,001, came in June, according to statistics gathered by station staff members. The Internet feature was added three years ago.

A survey conducted by the station in 2003 showed that 70 percent of the 301 people interviewed at grocery stores and libraries were familiar with Channel 16, though the survey did not ask how frequently viewers watched or for how long.

With 960 hours a year of original programming, 22 staff members and a $2 million budget, Channel 16 has enjoyed accolades in the government access cable community.

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