While many Arkansas newspapers and television stations have branched out into Internet blogs, websites and online video in a big way in recent years, down in Benton, the venerable Benton Courier newspaper is taking technological fence jumping to the next level.
In May, the Courier actually started its own cable television station, complete with a slate of locally produced programs. So far, says a Courier official, the reader/viewer response has been overwhelming.
Jim Perry is the publisher of the Benton Courier. A 30-year veteran of the newspaper business, Perry has always kept a foot in the world of broadcasting, including — before moving to Saline County in June 2006 — a two-year stint running a local television station in Lakeland, Fla.
As luck would have it, Perry arrived in Saline County just as a locally produced Benton cable station, Channel 95, was about to call it quits. Started as a way of showcasing the community, Channel 95 had eventually succumbed to a lack of time and know-how.
“It was really just some local businesspeople who had very little technological background to actually produce a TV channel and get the daily bills paid and the programming on the air,” Perry said. “So, after a year, that operation just kind of folded.”
Even though Channel 95 didn't survive, Perry saw that there was still a need — and a niche — for a homegrown cable station.
“For a long time,” Perry said, “the business community of Saline County has felt neglected by the Little Rock TV channels, quite honestly. If there's a really big drug bust or something bad goes down, they're here to cover that. But generally the coverage of local news and the business community has been covered by my newspaper.”
After signing on as a partner in the defunct station, Perry renamed it Courier TV 95, and had an all-digital studio, control room and business office constructed in an unused second-floor corner of the Courier building in downtown Benton. A cooperative agreement with Charter Cable soon followed, with Charter helping to run fiber optic cable from the studio to its nearby signal hub, resulting in a signal that's clearer than Little Rock stations when seen on local cable. Finally, in May, Courier TV went live. The channel broadcasts from 6:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. seven days a week (they plan to make the jump to 24-hour programming this September), and features eight in-house shows. Included are a live morning show called “Saline Today”; a police-themed call-in show called “Dateline: Saline County;” “Ask the Experts,” which features doctors, mechanics, plumbers and other professionals answering caller questions; and a musicians' showcase.
This fall, Courier TV 95 will carry all the Benton High School and Bauxite High School games, three Bryant High home games, and a weekly show featuring the head coaches of those three teams talking about past and future games. Veteran Arkansas sportscaster Dave Woodman will be providing play-by-play for Courier TV's “Game of the Week.” Response to news that the channel would be broadcasting hometown football has been good.
“When the word got out that we're going to be doing production from all three of the major communities to put their high school football on the air, people just came out of the woodwork to help us,” Perry said.
Perry said that the speed at which Courier TV 95 came together says a lot about digital technology and its use in broadcasting. “The control room used to be a huge area full of vacuum tubes and wires,” he said. “Now, with digital, we're using professional video formats but a lot of our stuff is on DVD.”
While Perry admits that a newspaper starting a television station might seem odd at first glance, it was a natural for him, with his background in television. So far, he said, the station has been a hit with both newspaper and cable subscribers. It's another ad sale opportunity, too.
“It's a good way for us to reach our non-subscribers and to let people know about the Benton Courier,” Perry said. “We're just trying to take every niche opportunity we can. We feel like we're a business hub for our county.”
Video killed the radio star