Budget Breakdown

In the good old days two years ago, those frothy salad days for telecoms and technology, New Jersey-based cable company RCN rode into town and plunked down the equivalent of a half billion dollars to buy out 21st Century Telecom, which was competing with AT&T for cable customers along Chicago’s lakefront. RCN also cut a deal with the city to build competitive service in three other areas. For those privileges the company agreed to pay an annual fee to CAN TV, the city’s public-access television network. (AT&T, which provides cable citywide, and Wide Open West, which serves the south side, also pay fees to CAN.) The fee was hefty, totaling almost a million dollars a year, and when RCN made its first payment in January 2001, CAN was happy as pigs in slop. Executive director Barbara Popovic says the money, which amounted to nearly a quarter of CAN’s budget last year, was used to greatly expand its call-in programs and training and send out more film crews. Suddenly CAN was covering “public forums and arts events all over the city,” says Popovic, giving nonprofits and neighborhood museums the in-depth coverage other channels lavish on celebrities and professional sports. And, she says, there was no reason to think the good times would end anytime soon. RCN had contracted to make payments to CAN for 15 years.

So when the next payment due date rolled around on January 7 of this year and a messenger showed up in CAN’s office with an envelope, Popovic was expecting another near-million-dollar bonanza. She was shocked to find only a check for $294,458–the amount due for RCN’s operation along the lakefront. The majority of the money–$645,000 for the additional three areas RCN was supposed to serve–was mysteriously absent. In the ensuing weeks and months Popovic wrote and called RCN, demanding they pay up. They stonewalled her at first, she says, and when they finally talked a couple of weeks ago she didn’t get any satisfaction.

On March 6, RCN asked the city’s Cable Commission for an extension on its obligation to lay new cable. The company cited a little problem with its stock price–down from a high of $67 to under $2–and a decision by Moody’s Investor Service (for reasons unfathomable to RCN) to downgrade its debt rating, making it nearly impossible to add to its $1.9 billion in outstanding loans. In light of all this, RCN wrote, it would have to modify its business plan and revise its existing obligations, including those to CAN. Cable Commission chair Joyce Gallagher says the city is reviewing RCN’s financial statements to confirm its crunch but notes that other cities where it does business have decided to cut it some slack. “We’re trying to work with RCN until it can get back on its feet,” Gallagher says. After a layoff, “they still have over 600 local employees. That’s a payroll of more than $30 million for Chicago families.”

RCN spokesperson Nancy Bavec says, “Paying the full payment is something that we think, given our situation, is not a reasonable thing to ask us to do.” Last week Alderman Bernard Stone introduced a resolution asking the city’s finance committee to hold a hearing on the matter.

Popovic says if the money doesn’t come in, CAN will have to cut services and staff. “And there’s a danger of a real negative precedent being set. The majority of CAN TV’s budget comes from the support of the cable operators. There’s never been a company in default on their payments.”

The Critics Are Coming!

In the universe of Chicago conventions, this promises to be the mouse that roars: the professional makers and breakers of the American Theatre Critics Association are packing their pens and opinions and heading our way, one hundred or so strong. ATCA announced this week that Chicago’s the site for its 2002 annual conference, June 11-16. This is ATCA’s third visit–it was here in ’79 and ’91–and event chairman Jonathan Abarbanel says it’s “an affirmation of Chicago’s status as a national theater city.” Conference headquarters will be the Hotel Allegro, but meetings are scheduled as far afield as the Marriott Lincolnshire. Chicago has plenty of new treasures to show off, Abarbanel says: “When the critics last met here not only was there no Loop theater district, but Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Redmoon, Lookingglass, Shattered Globe, Famous Door–some of our award-winning companies–weren’t even on the map.” The critics will take in at least a half dozen plays, including Victory Gardens’ The Old Man’s Friend, Steppenwolf’s The Royal Family, and Chicago Shakespeare’s The Tempest; they’ll hear a keynote address by the Reader’s own Albert Williams; and they’ll spend an hour at the new Goodman with composer Jerry Herman (Hello, Dolly!, Mame, La Cage aux Folles).

ATCA, which has been around since 1974 and has about 300 members nationwide, in effect picks the regional Tony award winner: the association recommends a theater every year for that honor, and the recommendation’s always been followed. Abarbanel notes that a year after ATCA saw The Visit at the Goodman during its ’91 conference, the Goodman snared a Tony. This year, the 14-member executive committee of the International Association of Theater Critics will also be in attendance, along with leaders of dance, music, and visual arts critics associations. Abarbanel says topics up for discussion include the shrinking number of daily papers, the shrinking number of column inches devoted to arts, and the way critics are (or aren’t) trained. The association has developed educational programs and is interested in building bridges with the Chicago Humanities Festival and its proposed Richard Christiansen Center for Arts Criticism. Critics with at least two years of paid professional experience, eight clips or tapes to submit, and the $45 membership fee are eligible for ATCA membership. The conference is $130 for members who pay by April 30; look for more info at www.americantheatrecritics.org.

Missing Michelle Madden

Chicago’s theater community will remember its most ardent and selfless publicist, Michelle Madden, in the most appropriate setting–one of the off-Loop theaters she was always knocking herself out for. Madden died suddenly last week of an apparent heart attack; a memorial event is set for Monday, April 22, at 7 PM at Bailiwick Repertory. Madden was a founder of Reflections Theatre company in the 1980s, and for the last decade her one-woman show, MMPR, blew the horn for groups like American Theater Company, Bailiwick, Famous Door, Free Associates, Griffin Theatre, and Shattered Globe.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.