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Public Access TV



What would you say about a television schedule that included Midnight Blue, an erotic variety show produced by Al Goldstein of Screw magazine; Emerald City, a program about life in homosexual communities; and The Irish Freedom Show, a series featuring a socialist host offering pro-IRA opinions?

Unusual? Impossible?

Unusual, yes; and impossible on most television stations-but not on public access television, a growing phenomenon throughout the United States.

Public access means just that: almost anyone who applies for a spot on a cable system's access channels may present a program free of charge. The concept of public access began in New York City in 1970.

Two companies offered to use cable systems to overcome the city's television transmission difficulties. Because TV signals were often distorted as they bounced off the city's skyscrapers, the companies planned to "wire up" the city and then broadcast all TV programs (for a monthly fee) via coaxial cable. (In Pennsylvania, during the late 1940s, a mountaintop antenna and cable had been successfully employed to transmit distant signals to rural areas.)

Four Stations Are Established

After much debate, the city finally approved the plan, stipulating that in exchange for operating authority, the cable companies had to provide at least four public access stations for community use. On two of the stations, public access time would be available free, on a first-come, first-serve basis, to anyone who applied. There would be neither advertising nor censorship, although in extreme cases cable operators could request changes in a program or refuse to broadcast material that might make them liable to criminal prosecution.

The third station would be a "leased access" station, which would accept advertising (and cost $25 per half hour to get on), while the fourth, a "municipal access" station, would be used by the city government.

Within ten years, New York had become the public access leader of the country, carrying well over 200 hours of programming a week, programs that ranged from talk shows, community documentaries, and comedies to avantgarde video presentations, left- and right-wing political speeches, and sexoriented entertainment.

Public access proved so successful, in fact, that in 1972 the Federal Communications Commission required cable operators to provide access stations in every cable market with 3,500 or more subscribers. Although this rule was later overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, many cities still insist that any franchise-holder offer access stations as proof that it has the community's interests at heart. In Chicago, for example, the city council is currently studying several different proposals for cable systems, and one of the council's recommendations is that 25 percent of any system's channels be allotted to public access programming.

The appeal of access is its-capacity for "narrowcasting"-broadcasting to a spec cialized audience-which is possible because there are no ratings or sponsors with whom to contend. Individuals, communities, or an organization may produce whatever types of programs they choose.

The Arthritis Foundation, for instance,  produces a regularly scheduled series called The Arthritis Clinic, which might never have been carried by crowded, non cable systems. Other independent producers offer programs focusing on such diverse topics as tarot, the Talmud, Bulgaria, astrology, the Bible, environmental issues, sports handicapping, the American Indian, communism, feminism, parapsychology, and the martial arts. As one observer puts it, "Access is a global village of ideas."

Many access producers espouse a single specific view; Irish Circle, seen in San Francisco, solely features pro-IRA demonstrations for an hour every week. Others, like Sari Bodi, a coproducer of the comedy series Videosyncracies, hope to gain television experience.

"We see it as a training ground," says Bodi, who began in cable the way many in New York do: on a live talk show 0 broadcast out of ETC studios, a "budget" facility capable of transmitting live programs.

Talk shows are the easiest type of program to produce, and ETC studio is the cheapest in New York. Partly because it offers Iive transmissions, but also because it utilizes volunteer labor, secondhand 0 or homemade equipment, and cramped studio space, ETC can keep production costs down. As a consequence, though, production values are low, most ETC programs have a washedout, secondhand look, with poor sound quality and frustratingly clumsy camera work.

Voluntary Action


"Talk shows are about all you can do at ETC," says Bodi, "and we wanted to do more, to experiment with the rnedium.

So she and a few other co-workers from the talk show devised their own program, found a time spot, and relocated to Young Filmakers, a new, relatively low-budget, nonprofit studio. While YF cannot broadcast live, it provides more studio space, more sophisticated equipment, and more room for innovations, and because its cameras are more sophisticated than ETCs, special effects and other post production work ,(such as editing) are possible.

The writers and performers of Videosyncracies are representative of the cross-section of volunteers typical of access programs: a pair of advertising executives, a circulation promotion consultant, a house painter, members of local improvisational companies, and a professional puppeteer (who also handles one of the cameras and acts as the show's offscreen announcer). The technical crew, similarly diverse, is also volunteer.

Crossing The Channels

"Many on access don't aim for more and see this as the end-all," says Bodi. "But forus it's a stepping-stone to something beyorid access. There are a lot of talented people with untapped energy out there, and there aren't enough spaces for them in the regular television market."            

Ferris Butler would agree. Formerly producer of an access comedy program called Waste Meat News, Butler considered the show a-learning experience, rewarded by his being hired to write for Saturday Night Live.

Working on access is indeed a learning experience-whether it is learning about the problems of reserving a "fishpole boom" microphone or of finding funds for the next program (funding often comes from a producer's pocket, although there are some grant-supported programs}.

An Academic Exercise

One college offered a course in television production, taught by network TV producer Barry Downs. Each week, the students elected a director, a producer, and writers, and then chose a topic to cover on their own access program. Another series, the two-year-old Love and Logic, taped every week at Young Filmakers, distributes the cost and rotates responsibility for production among its nine members, who interview guests, introduce singers, and offer twenty-fiveminute monologues. One of the show's former members is now employed by the Cable News Network.

Access is also used as a forum for video artists. SoHo TV, which began in New York in the late Seventies, features works by video artists. The series, elevated from access to Manhattan Cable's more prestigious Channel 10, is now seen on stations throughout the country, as well as in England, Holland, and Mexico.

Arguably more successful, but indisputably more controversial, is access's soft-core pornographic programming. On The Ugly George Hour of Truth, Sex, and Violence, former pornography film star George Urban coaxes women he meets on the street to undress in front of his portable video camera. On Midnight Blue, another series, produced by the publisher of Screw magazine, naked women undulate to belly dance music. Programs of this sort are roughly equivalent to R-rated films.

Seeing Red About Blue

Critics have lambasted such series (and their success: Urban is reportedly looking into European dist~ibution deals, while Midnight Blue is already being shown around the country) and have also upbraided cable franchise owners for allowing them air time.

One New York congressman, incensed by its suggestive content', showed tapes of Midnight Blue in Congress, citing the program as justification for tightening cable regulations. In the summer of 1980, a group of conservative senators introduced a bill that would have effectively eliminated access opportunities of any sort, but it stalled in Congress.

Cable operators were also opposed to access-at least initially. Aside from the headache of dealing with countless amateur producers and a variety of community groups, there was little profit to be gained. But this is changing.

Clarence Grier, channel coordinator at Manhattan Cable Television (MCTV), estimates that access is responsible for 10 percent of MCTV's subscribers. "Say a producer puts a show 'on the air and doesn't have cable," says Grier. "He'll make certain he gets it so that he can see his show, and his friends will buy cable, and his family, and so on. It's a ripple effect."

'The Die Is Telecast

Cable programmers are also.excited about the recent innovations in access. In Columbus, Ohio, for example, a twoway access setup allows viewers to respond-usually through a "yes-no" vote-s-to issues presented in the community meetings telecast over the local cable system. In New York, MCTV runs Telelessons, college courses for which students can receive credit.

Grier also sees access as a way of dealing with municipal cutbacks. ''There often aren't enough grade-school teachers to teach Spanish. But with a cable system, we can lock all the classes into one teacher in a studio and give classes that way."

Such techniques are only a few of the developing possibilities of cable, and access in particular. "People are often alienated by the mass-market programming on network television," Sari Bodi remarks. "But with access you can find out what's happening in your community, what other people are doing in your local environment – it's more personal. As other media are becoming more broad-scale, television, through cable, is becoming more select."

Diversion, November 1981