Conservatives started this
For years, liberals gave television flak for pandering to middle-class values and creating a commercial wasteland. More recently, former Vice-president Agnew tapped a major source of public resentment when he accused television executives of being an elite group of Eastern liberal intellectuals. Furthermore, President Nixon directed federal authorities to investigate the three major networks for anti-trust violations. Engaged in what it considered to be a Constitutional issue, the networks fought back, in the press and the courts.
Everybody wanted a slice of TV. Critics and networks alike, paraded the First Amendment to back up their positions.
Certain conservative groups felt they should have the right to buy equal time. In the BEM (Business Executives Move for Vietnam Peace) case, the Supreme Court-rejected this notion. Upholding the broadcaster’s right of discretion, the Court said that Congress had never intended the First Amendment to mean that “broadcast facilities should be open on a nonselective basis to all persons wishing to talk about public issues.” At the same time, the Court warned that television still had an obligation to provide “the kind of uninhibited, robust and wide-open exchange of views to which the public is constitutionally entitled.”
The general public, as opposed to the “private” public represented by the BEM wanted a better cut, too. Through the Sixties, manifold complaints hit the networks and the FCC regarding unfair coverage and, more grievously, lack of representation in entertainment, news, and public affairs. According to network news departments, they did their best to be fair. Still, the word “suppression” began to form on the lips of critics. Eric Sevareid of CBS News exposed the depth of the chasm between networks and groups “presumed to be suppressed” when he said, “How do you know about them to begin with, except through the press?” Newsmen have often been accused of parochialism; Sevareid confirmed the standards: “Nobody ever said anybody had the right of access ... unless they were interesting enough to deserve attention.” Millions of Americans knew it shouldn’t be true.
A more sinister attack came from the federal government. In the late Sixties, the government demanded access and rebuttal time of its own, and threatened to take it. Nothing makes the media squirm like federal intervention.
The government claimed the media was non-representative and elitist, and suggested stricter regulation. The networks already cringed under the gun of “ascertainment.” Ascertainment is the process through which the FCC grants tri-annual license renewals if the station has acted in the public “interest, convenience, and necessity”; that is, if it has had a fair proportion of public affairs to commercial and program broadcasting.
Media countered with a charge of Big Brotherism. The debate became esoteric — the right to speak versus the right to be heard; television as government (with direct public representation) versus television as interpreter (professional representation); mechanical access versus “idea” dissemination — until no one could see the First Amendment hairs being split.
The battle focused on the FCC’s “Fairness Doctrine,” a result of the Communications Act of 1934, and its various interpretations. The act provides for “reasonable, realistic, practical opportunities for presentation and discussion of conflicting views on controversial issues.” Networks charged that the government’s interpretation of this doctrine amounted to censorship.
As far back as 1935, U.S. News and World Report, a media leader of the time, warned against the then-new FCC policy of ascertainment. Calling it a club over the head of broadcasters, U.S. News editorialized that “nowhere in law is a broadcaster obligated to comply with a mandate of serving public interest, convenience, or necessity. If there were a mandate, who is to make the rules or issue the instructions. To authorize them means censorship — the route to repression.”
Thus, the spirit of free enterprise expressed itself during Roosevelt’s New Deal administration. But the FCC prevailed, ascertainment became standard practice, and the Supreme Court sanctioned the Fairness Doctrine in 1949.
In the intervening years the notion of Fairness took on a new tone. Under Nixon, the interpretation of right of access became a “right to be heard,” and the Fairness Doctrine, coupled with the ascertainment process, became the feared club. According to Clay Whitehead, Nixon-appointed head of the FCC, license renewal depended upon the applicant having “demonstrated that he has been substantially in tune with the needs and interests of the community concerned.” Newsmen, in particular, preferred to decide themselves who to coddle or investigate, and considered the guidelines to be authoritarian.
The adversary relationships between private interest groups, federal government and network television created a lot of friction. The general public nearly got lost in the sparks.
But not quite. In its concentrated effort to dilute network power by any method, the Nixon administration encouraged legislation requiring cable networks to provide one channel each for government access, educational access, and public access television. After it became law in 1972, Public Access television was to have been the un-censored voice of Middle America.
Public Access got its first test at the Alternative Media Center in New York City. AMC had the equipment, and staffers were prepared to accommodate the FCC guideline of first come, first served.
But there was no Middle American crush at the door.
Instead, the Alternative Media center found itself becoming a medium for what Steve Crouch, program manager of KSDT radio, called the “embodiment of the middle class dream” — pornography. This raised questions Public Access didn’t want at the time — censorship, moral responsibility, right of access.
Eventually, the thrill wore off and Public Access came into the hands of a few who interpreted its existence as an educational function. The “mandate of serving public interest” took on new meaning.
Its successes proved to its supporters that the public wanted responsibility for its share of information dissemination.
Fairness was not subverted for partisan purposes; Middle America turned out to be another slogan, workers worked and loafers loafed. Public Access broadcast manifested an energy of its own,- distinct from corporate or governmental.
As such. Public Access television is, according to Becky Smith of San Diego CVC, a “truly radical concept.”
The question of partisan censorship is neatly avoided. “Anything goes,” says Smith. There is no problem with what Dick Cavett calls the corporate network’s “all-pervasive refusal to treat the viewing audience as adults.”
Rather, it is predicated on a genuine public mandate — participation, and direct representation. It is programming designed for the specific interests of small groups.
The equipment is simple, sturdy and cheap, compared to network hardware. Sony and Panasonic Porta-Paks using 1/2 inch tape cost less than $2,000. Porta-Paks, observes Peter Weiner, author of Making the Media Revolution, “make it impossible for any one group to control the flow of televised information.” Cable operators provide a channel, equipment and funding, usually matched by grants from outside sources — CVC is funded by a grant from the Alternative Media Center. Work is donated by the community. Red Bums, director of the Alternative Media Center, calls it a “de-mystification” of TV, a way to “plug the people back into the nation’s media.”
The extent to which the public can plug into Public Access TV is limited only by imagination and breeding.
Unlike network media, there is presently no competition for broadcast time, at least on CVC. And according to law, you can fill that space with whatever you please. Experimental theater. Documentary. How-to-do-its. Violence. Racism. Lies, even, if you’ll take responsibility for them.
Just how far can a person go? The dictates of good taste and commercial pressures limit, or censor, the network media. Not so at CVC, although some of the politically-minded staffers would like to take a more affirmative hand in elevating public consciousness. Yet guidance is never allowed to become exhortation. If a tape is created depicting woman as household drudge, it is aired. A tape showing man to be a corporate lackey would also be shown. An Arab might speak on sending the Jews back to Israel, the virtues of vomit or the erotic utility of handguns may be extolled.
No limits? Well, says Becky Smith, “we kind of preview” the shows. It’s impossible to know exactly what some of them will be, however, until they’re shown. Most people, she says, know the FCC rules: No blatant pornography, no commercials, no political campaigning, no lotteries. Beyond that, anything goes, and the only person responsible is the one who made the film. Each film-maker is required to release CVC, coordinator Ann Prutzman, and sponsor Mission Cable from libel. There are, otherwise, no stockholders or advertisers to answer to.
Despite the opportunities for community service, self-indulgence and rhetoric, and despite the fact that, as one staffer put it, “people like to look at themselves on TV,” Public Access has plenty of unfilled broadcast time. It’s hard work to keep a schedule filled, a point of detraction to some. According to Richard Salant, president of CBS News and a Public Access critic, many “sub-groups” don’t actually want to get on television in their own behalf, they want someone else (the networks) to represent their views, so they can “nod their heads up and down, instead of back and forth.”
In fact, there are fewer than a dozen flourishing public access stations in the U.S. Of the three cable networks in San Diego, only one, Mission Cable, provides the public access service. Southwestern Cable had a public access station at one time, but, according to Willa Fitzgerald, cost too much money for too little use; right now. Southwestern picks up the CVC broadcasts from Mission Cable in order to oblige the FCC. This doesn’t let them off the hook if desire for public access on Southwestern is expressed in the future. The third company. Televents, has a market of fewer than 3,000 subscribers on Coronado Island. They have no Public Access channel. If you want to make a tape at Televents, they “have a rate for private use.” Otherwise, they’ll broadcast “whatever’s right for the community,” as determined by program director Eileen Edinger. Televents staffers run the equipment.
Other factors further limit Public Access viability. The FCC regulations apply to new cable systems only, and until recently a moratorium prevented cable development. At this point, subscribers to Mission Cable’s expansion system can pick up the CVC in Santee, Lakeside, Lemon Grove, National City, Normal Heights, Hillcrest, San Carlos, Imperial Beach and Chula Vista; via Southwestern’s pick-up to Rancho Bernardo, Pacific Beach, La Jolla and Clairemont.
As cable service expands, the potential for real, wide-based public access increases.
If, someday, competition for broadcast time requires decisions by someone as to who goes on, based on quality or potential profit of whatever sort—in a word, censorship— these problems and responsibilities do not bother Public Access yet.
The problem now is exposure, legitimacy despite a small audience.
It is no wonder that, with an intense constitutional debate at the corporate media levels over censorship, responsibility and fairness, not many people care that you could conceivably tune in CVC and watch a full-dress neo-Nazi eating scab lettuce. Middle America is watching Chico and the Man and doesn’t care. And the federal government will certainly not go to Public Access television in order to rebut criticisms from the major networks.
What special interest groups, including the government, want is not access, but audience. Public access grants no such audience. It gives, instead, access to equipment and the chance to work hard, at a local level. In this sense, it is a far more revolutionary concept than overthrowing corporate media, bending it, or grabbing its market, money, time — and headaches.
The network media decided the limits of its responsibility long ago. It is to report and interpret, as fairly as possible, events of note. Inherent in this format is a bias, not so much of special interest, but of professional tradition. If the fragmentation also inherent in its style misrepresents the community. Public Access TV has the potential to unify.
The heart of Public Access lies in its ability to elevate consciousness through participation, as Red Burns says, in the best Zen tradition, “the manner in which one acquires knowledge is part of that knowledge.”
On the other hand, it might just be what Thomas Wolf of ABC News called an “electronic Hyde Park,” where the soapbox is provided but the audience would rather feed the pigeons.
It’s up to those who use it.
– Mark Woelber
The motley assortment of "people" television
Are you a Mission Cable television subscriber? If so, you may have run across some rather strange programs while idly twiddling the dial. Mission Cable Channel 24, at the far reaches of the dial, is San Diego’s version of public-access television, a do-it-yourself sort of thing that is nothing like television you usually watch.
The most obvious difference is the type of programs you might see. Commercial television abounds with slick cops-and-robbers, family conflict, and variety shows. Too often, the basic plots are the same, and the relevance of the characters’ experiences to your own life may be slight. Public-service announcements on commercial television, which are short “commercials” for nonprofit, community-service organizations, are both shorter and more pointed than most public-access programs. The programs on public television, in the style of KPBS, are definitely an alternative to commercial television, but they are still conceptualized and produced by professionals and generally deal with “highbrow” cultural material.
Public-access programs, however, are made by all kinds of people — students, senior citizens, and middle-aged folk; social-change advocates, conservatives, and the unconcerned; artists, professionals, and your next-door neighbor. Accordingly, the programs treat a variety of subjects that directly pertain to the lives of San Diegans. Recent tapes shown on Channel 24 included documentaries on a comic-book convention, the making of an operatic production, and vegetarianism; talk shows about public access (what else?) and racial conflict; and interviews with waitresses, energy experimenters, and local artists. There have even been a few “video-art” tapes.
The types of programs directly reflect the interests of the people who live in San Diego, because the people who decide what kinds of programs to make are those who would normally be on the receiving end of TV —you and me. There is no television executive deciding whether your program will sell a product; nobody decides whether your program is a worthy contribution to the world of television programs. Anything that you want to put on public access goes on, providing that it doesn’t violate Federal Communications Commission prohibitions against obscenity, commercial advertising, political campaigning, and lottery information. The result is a motley, somewhat crude, sometimes boring, but rather refreshing assortment of homemade, “people” television.
One way to get a better idea of what public access is all about is to watch it. But here again, public access is different from commercial television. First, anyone with a TV set can watch commercial television, but to watch public access, you must be a cable television subscriber. More than that, you must be a recent Mission Cable subscriber — at least for the time being. Other cable systems in San Diego will have public access as soon as they have a demand for it. A second difference is that, far from following commercial television’s all-day schedule, public access now appears on Mission Cable Channel 24 for only a brief time each week. Currently the channel is “lit” from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. on Friday nights (and rather than commercials between programs, Channel 24 shows a static title card with taped music in the gaps between programs). The amount of programming will grow as the number of people who make programs increases. The channel has nothing on it besides public-access programs, so there’s still plenty of room for any shows that you may want to make.
One of the things that makes it possible for you and me to become television producers is the equipment that is used. Commercial television uses cumbersome, intricate, and temperamental cameras and videotape recorders. Public-access producers rely on small, portable, easy-to-use “half-inch” videotape equipment. The camera is slightly larger than an 8-mm film camera, and the videotape recorder can easily be slung over the shoulder for carrying (hence the name portapak). The tape is half an inch wide and comes on half-hour reels. As with audiotape recorders, the information that is being recorded is magnetically imprinted on the tape, which allows it to be immediately replayed or erased and reused. Anyone who can learn to use an audiotape recorder can learn, with a minimum of help, to use half-inch videotape equipment.
There is a great deal of this sort of equipment available in schools, museums, and other institutions, although they do not usually allow the general public to borrow it to make programs for public access. There is, however, a way for people to get hold of the equipment. Although no other cable systems have yet set up their own public-access facilities. Mission Cable has established a public-access studio and office at 6225 Federal Boulevard to complement Channel 24.
When you first walk into the studio (after negotiating some stairs and a mazelike hallway), you are struck by the activity that fills two rather small rooms. The studio, which in no way resembles the sterile grandeur of a broadcast studio, is equipped with a movable curtain, some chairs, and odd pieces of set decor such as empty cable reels and posters from previous shows. There are lights, tripods, microphone stands, and the like, but the actual recording equipment takes up very little space. One of the cameras is set on a tripod and trained on the chairs. A table near the door holds a couple of larger recording decks and some monitors, and a small pegboard on the wall holds an assortment of cables. A little cluttered, but kind of comfortable. When not being used for a studio production, the studio is used for editing videotapes, teaching the use of videotape equipment, meetings, and socializing.
The socializing that takes place in the studio is spillover from the very small office. A desk, a table, a file cabinet, bookcases, and an old blue couch cover almost all the available floor space. A couple hundred black-boxed videotapes stand against one wall. Some books and magazines that deal with videotape production and the concept of public access overflow a small bookcase. Two phones ring constantly.
At the Mission Cable studio, you can produce a five-minute program, with half an hour of set-up time, for free. The people at the studio will run the camera and recorder. If you want to produce a longer program in the studio, you’ll pay $ 1 per hour for using the equipment. (All funds collected for equipment use go into a maintenance fund,
and any money left over will be used to buy new equipment.) To check out a portapak, you’ll pay S1.25 per hour. No one is allowed to use the equipment without being certified, which means that you must attend two training sessions (at a cost of $5 for both) and work with a production assistant on a couple of programs before being allowed to check out equipment on your own. A more advanced videotape editing class costs $5.
These are ridiculously low rates by broadcast standards or even when compared to commercial rentals of half-inch video equipment or production-company rates. What makes it all possible is a happy confluence of Federal Communications Commission regulations, the type of equipment that is used, cable system cooperation, and a primarily volunteer staff. The Community Video Center (CVC), administrates Channel 24 and the Mission Cable studio. It is a nonprofit, tax-exempt corporation, open to the public, that was established to provide volunteer public-access services to the community and to encourage the use of the public-access channels.
As with any other organization, the CVC is an amalgam of people, and its history is that of people. In 1973, through an ad in the Reader, Peter Randolph and Rebecca Smith attempted to reach other San Diegans who shared their interest in public access and half-inch videotape. They made contact with several people who had been working with half-inch video and who realized that public access was not only a good outlet for their own videotapes but also an important community resource. For a time, these people merely compared notes and dreamed of using the public-access channels. Then Bob Broderick and Steve Dowers contacted Mission Cable and showed one tape on the public-access channel by patching their own equipment into Mission's transmitter; Peter and Rebecca followed soon after with a program of their own. Both shows appeared mysteriously on a black channel that lapsed back to black immediately afterward.
It had become apparent that if public access in San Diego was to take hold, a concerted, organized effort must be made. Through Experimental College videotape workshops at San Diego State University and more Reader ads, a core group of about a dozen people began to meet about once a week to discuss the way to provide public access in San Diego and the form that their organization would take. A few dedicated souls — Peter, Rebecca, Vic Schoenberg, and Rick Phetteplace — worked evenings and weekends to formulate the policies and documents to establish it. On July 1, 1974, the CVC was born.
The Community Video Center has had several concrete successes, and it is amazing that so much has been accomplished by a handful of people with full-time responsibilities in jobs and school. From the beginning, they saw one of their main obstacles as public ignorance about the existence of the public-access channels, as well as about how to use them. At the beginning, they were successful in drawing about twenty to thirty people to monthly meetings about public access and half-inch videotape. Some of the people only came once, but many returned to help out. Incorporation, cost accounting, and other legal matters have been successfully completed with volunteer help. Tax-exempt status has been granted by the state and is pending from the Internal Revenue Service. The CVC has negotiated with Mission Cable for office space and a one-year contract to operate Mission’s public-access studio. And they have been able to raise a small amount of money — from dances at San Diego State University, a grant from the Alternate Media Center (which was matched by Mission Cable), and a grant from the California Arts Commission. In part, these grants have allowed the CVC to hire one full-time staff member, Anne Prutzman, who is a program catalyst responsible for working with community organizations to produce programs. Anne and a staff of volunteers also coordinate activities at the Mission Cable facilities. The CVC has arranged with San Diego State University, the University of California, San Diego, and San Diego High School to allow academic interns to earn credit for assisting with productions and office work. The CVC now has about forty-five dues-paying members and other volunteers.
A new organization with diffuse leadership is bound to have a lot of problems. Perhaps foremost is lack of money. Because public access requires expensive equipment, there must be funds to buy, operate, and maintain that equipment. Mission Cable has helped to give public access a start by providing a basic package of equipment, but more is needed to give everyone who wants to make a program the means to do so. The CVC also needs funds to pay for a full-time office coordinator. The lack of a coordinator is sorely felt, as a visit to the office will prove. The staff at the Mission Cable facilities are struggling to keep their hours regular, to provide enough training sessions to meet the demand, and to keep up with all the paperwork involved in scheduling programs and checking out equipment. There is a great deal to do in educating the community about making programs and in telling Mission Cable subscribers that Channel 24 is operating. However, the CVC has not yet been able to search effectively for grants from local and national sources. In general, there is too much to do for the number of volunteers ' who are consistently and seriously involved.
There is also a degree of confusion about the directions that the CVC will take. Most of the founders of the CVC have been replaced, through organizational processes, and the new members have a less complete understanding of the history and purposes of the CVC. Another shortcoming is that most of the people who have so far been involved are members of the white middle class and most of the people who spend time at the studio are students. For public access to truly represent the community, as the CVC acknowledges, more members of minorities must get involved, as well as older people, women, and more traditional community-service organizations.
However, public access is a community service worth struggling for, as most anyone who is involved would vehemently argue. It offers a means for all segments of the San Diego community to get to know one another. And there are ways to become involved. Mission Cable subscribers have only to tune in to Channel 24 on Friday nights. Those who cannot receive the channel in their homes are invited to the studio at 6225 Federal Boulevard to view the Friday-night programs. In the near future, many San Diegans will probably be asked to appear in programs being made for the public-access channels. Another means of involvement is to make a program — about your club’s or organization’s activities, on a special talent of your own or a neighbor’s, on a personal opinion, about community events. And the CVC invites anyone who is interested in helping them out to volunteer some time to answer phones or to assist in productions, to donate money or equipment, or to participate in any possible way. The first step is to call the Mission Cable office at 263-2424 to find out more about people television. From there, it’s up to you.
– Reba James