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Local Film Tweets

Say What You Will on Public Access

Public Access TV is a little-acknowledged feature of our everyday viewing that warrants some closer examination.

By Keith Wagner

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Public access television.

Public access television is a little-acknowledged feature of our everyday TV viewing habits, something we breeze past while grazing through the slick and glossy offerings served up on the basic cable menu. However, after hearing what public access strives to accomplish, and the ideals that the concept of community access is built upon, I'm wondering if public access might not warrant some closer examination.

I can see you wrinkling your brow here. "Public access television?" you ask. "Who watches public access?" Well, no one really knows. Organizations like Nielsen don't seem to perform ratings on non-commercial (in other words, non-money-making) media outlets, so there's nothing in the way of quantitative viewership statistics. However, a look at the programs and the people who produce them might shed some light on the audience.

Monday (Cambridge Community Television): Yoga with the Kaans. Islamic Perspective. Soap Box. Lolly's Remedies. Caribbean Afro Beats.

While other channels strive for content that cuts across demographic and regional boundaries to reach the broadest possible audience, community access channels reach the audience within their city limits. "We're losing our geographic focus," says Mimi Graney, executive director of Somerville Community Access Television (SCAT). "Cable access allows us to retain the local focus."

This local focus, especially in large, diverse cities, explains the wide variety of public access programming. It's a variety that borders on mind-boggling, and from hour to hour often seems downright schizophrenic for one station. "From belly dancing instruction to rent control issues to a psychic program to smoking cessation--you name it, we've had it," says Anneita Agritha, program coordinator for Cambridge Community Television (CCTV).

Tuesday: Portuguese Entertainment Network. Karate Action TV. Fistful of Popcorn. Cambridge Garden. Being Black.

People in the community who aren't represented by conventional media outlets find a forum through public access. For example, SCAT broadcasts more than 70 hours of original programming each week in seven languages. When I watch, I often have no idea what's being said, but it's obvious there's an audience now being served, a segment of the community being spoken to in their own language about subjects that are meaningful to them.

Certain segments of the population have their sense of community reinforced by this programming, and at the same time other residents get a better sense of who their neighbors are. "Somerville could very easily become a Boston suburb," says Graney, "and this is a way to bring everyone together as a community." After only a short time at Somerville's access center, Donald Everett, a new member of SCAT, has found it to be a place where "you bridge your differences, see what you have in common, and meet people you wouldn't ordinarily meet."

Wednesday: Haitian American Teen TV. Youth on the Move for Christ. This is India. Air Force News. Women Speak. Crapfest.

Public access channels aren't required by law anymore, as they were when cable first arrived on the scene in the '70s. Today, most cities, when awarding a franchise to a cable operator, will stipulate that a channel (or channels) be made available for public access as condition of the cable licensing agreement. The cable company is required by federal law to provide a percentage of their gross revenues to the city, some of which goes toward funding community access centers.

Here's how to become involved: Attend the access center orientation session (usually mandatory), become a member by paying a small yearly fee, enroll in the hands-on workshops which will certify you to use the equipment (again paying a small fee for each workshop), and you're ready to produce your own show.

And yet very few people take advantage of the opportunities provided by access television, if local participation is any indication. My own admittedly unscientific reckoning, using woefully outdated 1990 census figures, yielded less than two-tenths of one percent of Somerville residents making use their city's facilities (220 SCAT members out of 76,210 residents), and one-half of one percent of residents in neighboring Cambridge (480 CCTV members out of 95,802 residents).

Thursday: Animal Agenda. Lord God Omnipotent Reigneth. Psychic Entertainment. Healthy Cooking. John Birch Society.

Community access has been called the video equivalent of letters to the editor; the metaphor Mimi Graney uses is "an electronic soapbox." "We're one of the only places on the dial that allows people to use the public right-of- way to express their opinions," she says. The role of access centers is to provide just that--access to a certain segment of cable bandwidth. This is perhaps public access television's greatest strength: giving the average citizen a voice. "I don't feel as helpless," says Everett. "I don't feel as removed from what's going on. I have an outlet now if I want to complain."

The First Amendment right to free speech is a value held above all others on community access television. Accordingly, there are no censors--programming is a no-holds-barred affair, with ultimate responsibility for content placed in the hands of individual program producers. Programs with questionable or adult content are merely aired late in the evening. "We don't turn anything away," says Agritha. "That's what public access is about." As a programming guideline, Graney says SCAT "encourages producers to consider their impact on the community," which still leaves tremendous leeway for content. The only material not broadcast is that which can be legally defined as "libelous, slanderous, or obscene."

And even that definition is open to interpretation. Last October, the Nebraska Court of Appeals overturned a lower court ruling which convicted Scott Harrold of distributing pornography via his Lincoln CableVision public access program "Cosmic Comedy," where Harrold reviews adult movies while dressed as a clown. The episode in question aired in 1995, and featured Harrold masturbating during the program. In his ruling, Judge Richard Sievers drew a distinction between "indecent" and "obscene," saying that "while the adjectives strange, weird, graphic, unnecessary, distasteful, indecent and offensive are applicable to Harrold's video, it is not legally obscene." At the time of the ruling, Harrold was set to go back on the air with his program.

Friday: Tele Kreyol. Exploding Envelope. Tele Evangelique. Spirit of Dance. Scribblers.

Given this freedom, community access stations provide an ideal stomping ground for the novice filmmaker. For a nominal financial investment, you get instruction on how to use the equipment, virtually unlimited access to equipment and facilities, and a guaranteed outlet for your project. "You're only limited by your imagination," says Everett. And people do go on to bigger things. Graney says Brad Anderson, director of "Next Stop, Wonderland," used a series of interviews with 20-somethings he conducted at SCAT as the basis for his first film, "The Darien Gap."

So the next time you're pushing through the media clutter on your way to the Sundance Channel, take a minute to look at what's happening on your public access station. It might be a talk show in another language, or, as rough and unpolished as it may appear, you might just be getting an early glimpse of the next indie darling. Either way, that's your neighbor there on the tube, and they've got something important to tell you.

If you're interested in finding your local community access center, or would like to start one from scratch, visit the Alliance for Community Media at http://www.alliancecm.org. (Daily listings taken from CCTV's January 1999 Series Program Schedule.)