By MINDY LUCAS
It’s a Friday morning at the Beaufort County administration building on Ribaut Road. Inside, on the first floor, the staff of the County Channel is gearing up for the next segment of Coastline, a public affairs show featuring county officials and local or community representatives.
While county administrator Ashley Jacobs works out what she wants to talk about with the show’s substitute host, Scott Grooms, Rob Lewis is busy next door in “Master Control” manning a large, colorfully lit panel just below a computer monitor.
A 10-year County Channel veteran, Lewis helps produce and direct the channel’s original content and, along with other staff, helps record its many meetings.
“This is basically live editing,” he says, as he explains what the “Control Surface,” as it is called, does.
After a few minutes more, everyone is ready and Lewis gives the signal.
“Stand by. We are recording,” he says, as he begins counting them down. “4 – 3 – 2 – 1.”
Built from the ground up
A locally produced, public-access styled broadcast, the County Channel began airing on Jan. 2, 2007.
“I came in at 9 o’clock, threw the switch and we were on the air,” Grooms said after the taping of Coastline.
A longtime broadcast engineer, Grooms left SCETV in 2006 to help the county launch what would essentially be a new, albeit one-man, department.
In an effort to promote greater transparency, the county’s administration wanted a way of broadcasting meetings for residents who were spread out over 923 square miles of land and water and segmented by the Broad River. They also wanted a vehicle for getting important information out to residents in the event of a hurricane.
So Grooms not only helped launch the channel, he also built its control room and master control from the ground up over the tail end of 2006. He and his wife even spent that Christmas Eve in the building so Grooms could finish everything, have it tested and ready to go before the New Year rolled in.
“We were very happy about it,” he said, remembering the big day.
In 2009, the county took over what was then the military channel, or Channel 9, essentially making it a full-time television station.
And since the county already had the equipment for recording meetings, it only made sense that the staff tape and air other things as well. After all, what they didn’t want to be, Grooms said, was a CSPAN-like channel with meeting after meeting after meeting.
“That’s boring television,” said Grooms, who today manages the county’s five-person Broadcast Services department. “And so we said, ‘We’ve got to have something to liven it up a little bit.’”
A livelier mix
In addition to broadcasting all county council and committee meetings, the County Channel also airs select board and commission meetings and produces original and educational content. Coastline, County Lens, Night Skies and Coastal Kingdom are all programs the county channel’s staff has envisioned or produced from scratch.
What’s more, the department has two fully equipped broadcast trucks which allow staff to travel around the county shooting parades, USC Beaufort sports, area college graduations and other types of programming which also airs on the County Channel.
“Anything we want to do, we can do with these trucks,” Grooms said.
With the exception of a couple of days at the end of 2019, in which the channel was down for some updates, the channel is on 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Viewers can watch via their local cable network or online and can also listen to the County Channel radio, which broadcasts oldies and music from the “’60s, ’70s and more.”
And shows like Coastal Kingdom or County Lens aren’t just there for entertainment, they serve a useful purpose as well, Grooms said.
Because staff cannot predict how long a council or other meeting will run, this “interstitial” programming allows them to adjust the channel’s schedule. So if a meeting runs long, a program block can simply be removed to allow more time for that meeting, he said.
“But it also gives people something to watch,” he said. “They’re flipping channels and they see something on Fort Fremont or something from St. Helena and they’re going to stop and watch it.”
It’s certainly been a popular concept not only with Beaufort County residents, but with those outside the area as well. From Charlotte to Atlanta, viewers are “tuning in” to get a glimpse of the good life or scenes from around the Lowcountry, as real time analytics show.
Coastal Kingdom, for example, which recently won an Emmy for best on air talent, gives viewers a first-hand look at the region’s diverse ecology. The popular show, hosted by naturalist Tony Mills, also airs on SCETV.
Doing a lot with a little
Rob Lewis, who is the main producer and editor of Coastal Kingdom, said the ability of the County Channel to offer what it does is no small undertaking – especially given the size of their department.
“It’s a testament to the talent of the people who work here,” he said.
In addition to Lewis and Grooms, the team includes audio-visual technician, Alec Bishop, and production assistant, Jan Beaudrie. Another AV position is currently vacant.
Lewis says this “doing a lot with a little” really hits home when you see the credits roll at the end of a comparable program, say a PBS show, and there are hundreds of names associated with its production.
“If you look at a county channel show, you’ll see three names,” he said, laughing. “And we’re trying to keep pace with professional productions … but it’s with a lot less budget and lot smaller staff.”
Grooms said he’s proud of what the team has been able to accomplish over the last 13 years, and is often surprised by what viewers wind up enjoying – like the morning traffic cameras which show traffic at various points along the county’s highways and major intersections.
“When we first started those things, I was like there is no way people are going to watch them,” he said. “It’s like the old adage of being in a small town and watching the traffic light blink.”
But like them they did. So much so, that after turning them off after a trial run, viewers started called in asking what happened.
“You’d thought I’d done taken someone out in the middle of the street and beat them,” he said, laughing.
Another time county channel staff realized they were on to something was during the broadcast of the Dixie Baseball World Series at Oscar Frazier Park in Bluffton a few years ago. Through an email to the county, the staff realized some family members who were deployed overseas were watching their kids play along with other troops in Afghanistan.
“So that was cool,” Grooms said. “That was very fulfilling.”
Above: The County Channel’s Scott Grooms