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Cable T.v. Public Access

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The fotlowing árdele is from a pilol copy of TUBE, a new video magazine. It deals with pubie access to cable TV by describing the various relationships that exist between communities using pubie access and the cable companies required to pro vide ir by the ICC The cable companies are guided by the profit motive, not by dedication to community service. Therefore by the end of the arhele we realize that the poten tial of public access cable TV is not vet being realized. Tiis is the first in a series oj ' artieles the si is running on cable Tl'. So watch for coverage of the local public access situation and news about the local cable compon v. Michigan CA TV Associates in future issues. Cable televisión is creeping aeross the country, lts already in New York, and DeKalb. Illinois, and Lubbock. Texas. By 1480. so the experts say, almost everybody wilí have access to it. It will bring at least 20 channels into your home as well as something calied two-way transmission capacity. Which ineans that with a little keyboard on top of your TV. you can ask questions of your set and it can give you soine answers. II' you happen to live in Reston. Virginia, where Mitre Corporation set up its experiment with two-way cable, you could get an antidote lor a poison or make a doctor's appointment by pushing the right buttons. II you wanted to keep up with what was happening on a minimal cable system. you could watch one hour on each of the twenty channels and still have four lelt to sleep. Bui what, one might ask. are they going to fill 20-odd channels with? Are there that many old movies. I Love Lucy reruns. and hosts for quiz shows available? Well, perhaps not. One channel will be dedicated to the use of the local government and its various branches, one to the educational system, one to each of the existing local televisión stations, two or three to the importation of distant televisión stations from other cities. and all but one of the rest will be leased to commercial operators. The last one is for us. The public-you and I-is going to have one channel. Free. At five minutes a shot. This is not the place to go into the complicated tangle of political and legislative maneuvers that went into thal decisión. It is a reality. Soon af ter the cable hits town. you can be un televisión. And the great thing about h is that no one but your loved ones will be watching. Who could stand hour after hour of 5-minute harangues on % insanely miscellaneous variety of topics that would appear on the public access channel? Public access to televisión is one of those freak opportunities that are a spin-off from a higlily advanced technology. No one really knows yet what can come of it, or what it's good for, because it"s too new. Cable televisión itself was only first laid around 1950, when an enterprising televisión dealer oflered it tree to his customers as a sort of superantenna service to promote the sale of televisión sets m áreas where reception was bad. Since then it has developed into a promising industry that has tempted the investment of corporate giants like Hughes Aircraft, Warner Communications, and Time-Life Inc. The opportunity for public access rests partly on the vast channel-carrying capacity of the cable itself, and partly on the confused perception that somehow "the airwaves belong to the people." That's a pretty safe assumption, considering the fact that "the people" in general haven't the toggiest notion of how to use the media's vast power. ("Hi. mom. Hi, dad. I'm on TV.") The legally required uve minutes tree time in front of a studio camera is hardly the beginning of a revolutionary new medium. Still, the concept of public access has generated a trcmendous amount of energy. Information is power in our society. And televisión is the most powerful disseminator of information around. But how can cable, with its almost unlimited information-carrying capacity, be put to use for whatever group of people one is part of? An interesting question. One group working on the answer to that question is the Altérnate Media Center of New York which was funded in 1971 by the Markle Foundation to experiment with what people could do with a new decentralized medium. They started by making video tapes for people with specific problems, like a dangerous corner that needed a traffic light. Their exper ience led them away from shooting tapes for people, however. The want to help re-orient people to the technology, to demystify it, and to turn it into a tooi with which groups can explore their own needs and communicate them. They decided that the best way to accomplish that was to set up decentralized places where people could come in, learn to use the portable, half-inch video-tape recorders, and take them out to shoot their own tapes. Because people, having been conditioned for so long to being passive consumers of the mass media, must essentially begin to invent their own ways of using it. In an interview with Ted Knupp of the University of Wisconsin, Red Burns said, "We're talking about the kinds of things that will happen to people when they plug into things that have been denied to them before. Not denied because some big bad jyolf said you can't do that. But because there was a scarcity of channels. Now it isn't necessary to '. tliink in terms of the mass audience, because 'm the mass audience can't look at eighty ., channels at the saine time. We're '.t not in competition." Remember the first time you lieard your voice on a tape recorder? Video is twice as powerful a mirror. It has the ability to capture the mood, the essence of a situation. In 1972, one of the big multiple-system cable operators, American Televisión and Communications Corporation, agreed to cosponsor an experiment in public access with the Altérnate Media Center. An access center was set up in Reading, Pennsylvania in Orlando, Florida, Bakersfield, California, and DeKalb, Illinois. The newest one was in nearby DeKalb, and so, when the expert who was supposed to write this column disappeared into a franchise battle in Louisville, Kentucky, I put on my hat and went down to check it out. "You can't miss it," Eileen Connel, the Altérnate Media Center representative told me. "DeKalb only has one main street, the highway into town. Just stop in front of the hardware store. We're on the second floor." When I walked into the big barn of a floor storefront that serves as DeKalb's public access center, Eileen Connel was watching a tape made by a girl's high school economics club. It consisted of 5 or 6 high school girls reading off bits of advice about the importance of credit management from cue cards. It was even more boring than a lecture on money management from your local Chamber of Commerce, but Eileen loved it. "It's terrible, everything's wrong with it, but I love it," she said. "They did it themselves with the portapak, and next week they'll see it on the cable, and tney 11 never make a tape like that again." It took me a couple of days to begin to see why she was so enthusiastic. It began to dawn on me when a man from the local Jesús movement brought in a tape of a rally featuring a convert from satanism to Christ. The Jesus movement is a completely inexplicable phenomenon to me. I'm extremely curious about it, having been scared to death as a child in the South by fanatical relatives who told me how easy it was to be cast forever into the flaming pits. I remember when the networks covered the Jesus people a few years ago. They did a good job, very slick. with lots of interesting commentary by intelligent reporters. But it was very unsatisfying to me. I wanted to see the Jesus people somehow from the inside, from their point of view, without fancy cuts and expert color camera work. So this was a rare opportunity for me, created by the special quality that half-inch video equipment has: a sort of raw, "you are there" quality. And it's portable. You can take it with you into the street, or your home, or to the supermarket. I suddenly caught sight of one of the oppouunities of "public access." I might see something of the complicated lives and perceptions and emotions of my neighbors through their own eyes on the public access channel. For me it has all the fascinating potcntial of the soap operas, without their boring artífice. I could see the possibility of hundreds of complex, aggravating social documents coming out of DeKalb, Illinois. That's one part of it. I had a glimpse of another side of the process when I watched a troop of 9 and 10 year old girl scouts tramping up the stairs tor their first lesson in the use of the half-inch equipment. Within twenty minutes they were taping each other giggling and doing wild dance numbers all around the studio. Then they watched the playback on televisión. They sat in front of the set with that glassyeyed stare peculiar to children watching televisión. But this time they were watching themselves, I heard one of them say. "That's us, dancing." Sideways and upside down. You have to learn something about yourself and the way other people see you when you watch the playback. Synanon is using half-inch equipment in its games. Video tape has the power to make visible all the subtle undercurrents that are so much a part of our interaction with other people. Frozen smiles, impatient nods, bouncing feet. It's all there. "Did I say it like that?" Remember the first time you heard your voice on a tape recorder? Video is twice as powerful a mirror. jlt has the ability to capture the mood, the essence of a situation. The DeKalb project was only a few weeks old when I was there, but already one group had spotted the potential that public access might have for community organizing. DeKalb's schools are badly in need of renovation, but it's been difficult to persuade the voters to O.K. a bond issue to make repairs. So the League of Women Voters took the Center's portable equipment into the schools, made some tapes of what needed to be done, and on the Saturday before the bond issue came up, they played the tapes at intervals throughout the day. In between showings they "went live" from the access center answering tions that were phoned in. They got more than 40 phone calis from interested viewers. On election day, the bond issue passed by a 2-1 majority. I was beginning to get excited about public access in DeKalb, but I wondered what the cable company was getting out of it. Joe Petro, the local manager, had just been transferred up trom an even smaller system in Yazoo, Mississippi, which he also managed for Warner Communications. He seemed a little bewildered by all the activity around the corner from his office. There was no public access in Yazoo, he told me. Twelve hundred subscribers could never support it. He was concerned about the amount of money the access center was costing. and was relieved to hear that the national company was footing the bill. Joe had a lot of problems already in the DeKalb system without having to deal wiü public access. DeKalb's 12-channel system was constructed 7 years ago, and by cable time, that is oíd. It has to be completely relaid to meet the minimum FCC requirements of 20 channels and two-way capacity. Mr. Petro's rough estímate of the cost to rewire with new transistorized equipment that won't break down all the time is about a half-million dollars. "And the system only has 5,800 subscribers," he tolt me. (At the time, a half-million dollars seemed like a lot of money to me. But when I figured it out, at S5.25 a month per subscriber, the revenue from the system turned out to be around $360,000 a year. I could see that updating the system would be worthwhile to Warner Communications, the second largest multiple-system cable operator in the business.) By contrast, the access center cost about $11, 000 to set up. It's an unusual center, in that it is a head end, which means that the storefront has its own modulator which plugs right into the cable for , continued on page 16 If yon start with the nceds of a large corporation, of course yoifre going to get a system that just Iets people watch, or pusli a button that bleeps: yes. Til buy. We want a system that would allow people to conjm unica te with each other, not retreat into more easily manipulable units. VClOlS 1 V continued from page 9 live or taped program origination. It has 3 Sony portapaks. 3 .editing decks, and a couple of monitors (TV sets). It's a luxurious situation compared to some IVe heard about where people have struggled to get the SI, 500 together for a portapak and begged the cable system for time to air their tapes. 1 asked Joe Petro why he thought Warner had gone to the trouble. "Well," he said, "I guess the point is tliat we have to deal with it sometime. You have to have public access now by law. We need to know what we're dealing with. how much it's going to cost us, and so on. It's an experiment." While I was there. Jack Williams flew down from Warner's New York office to meet with local DeKalb citizens and see their access center. He seemed very concerned that the project succeed, and pleased with the progress so far. His attitude was a surprise to me. Isn't there a contradiction between Big Business and the ideal of public access as a kind of rebirth of local expression? Isn't there something ominous about the rapid consolidation of cable companies in the hands of huge corporations like Warner? Altérnate Media Center's philosophy is that public access people should beware of villainiing the cable operators. They've had outstanding cooperation from the companies they've dealt with. "It all depends on your approach," Eileen Connel told me. "When you're dealing with business people, you have to talk business. Be straight with them. teil them what you need and what you have to offer. I get sick of hearing all the radical rhetoric that some groups are spouting. The worst thing that could happen to public access is that people become convinced that it' s just a bunch of long-haired freaks trying to grab the media. That will only make the cable operators stubbdrn, and aliénate local people who might otherwise use it to really change their home towns." All that's required of the cable operators by Iaw is to provide 5 minutes free access time to the public. The rest is strictly voluntary. The Altérnate Media Center keeps its operations very low key, partly so that it can gain the kind of broad community participaron that is its goal. and partly to preserve the cooperation so far gained from the cable companies. And this approach has worked for them. The success of the Project at Reading was a real selling point for public access. According to the local manager in Reading, the enthusiasm generated from the public access project won the system enougli new subscribers to change it from a sluggish. unprofitable one into a growing, money-makine operation. But the Altérnate Media Center's good luck has not been unversal, nor has their acceptance of the "good business" approach. Their dependence upon the good will of big business for access to a crucial public resource seems like folly to some. "Bullshit!" says Alian Frederiksen, alias Johnny Videotape. "Do you know that TelePrompter of New York, the largest multiple-system cable operator in the business, is not really TelePrompter of New York?" he demanded of me on the phone. "It's Theta Corporation of Manhattan, and that means Howard Hughes. Hughes Aircraft, which is building and launching the first microwave relay satellite to interconnect cable systems." (Satellites could soon interconnect all the cable systems in the country, or the world for that matter, so that we could have a national or world Communications system with almost unlimited capacity. For those of you who didn't know what cable was when you started this article, it can only get worse. I sympathize.) "What does it mean," 1 implored him. "It's a lot of power in two greedy hands, baby." And if Alian Frederiksen mistrusts the power of big business when it comes to protecting local needs, he has reason. Over a year ago. Alian and a group of people using video tape tried to get access to the TelePrompter-owned Santa Cruz cable system. They got nowhere with their request for time from the local cable manager, in spite of the fact that one channel was blacked out for 40 hours a week. Santa Cruz is an old system that doesn't have to provide for public access for five years yet. So the group collected enough signatures to have the question placed on the ballot in an upcoming state election. But the city attorney, whom Frederiksen says was in VaO16 1 V contiruied from page 16 Prompter's back pocket," effectively blocked the petition on the grounds that the upcoming election was a state, and not a municipal one. A court case was was initiated, but proved too long and costly for Allan's Committee for Open Media to m:intain. Instead they devised another strategy. Alian fired off a letter to TelePrompter's president, Walter Bresnan, threatening to show up in every city in California where TelePrompter was bidding for the franchise to lay a cable system. In nearby Saratoga, California, TelePrompter was bidding for the franchise. They were so sure that they would get it, according to Alian, that they had already lined up a construction firm. But at the public hearing on October 20 when TelePrompter presented its case to the city council, Phil Jacklin made a counter-presentation for the Committee, describing TelePrompter's recalcitrance in granting public access to the citiens of Santa Cruz. TelePrompter lost the franchise. In a collect telegram to Bresnan, Alian said, "Last night you lost the Saratoga franchise because of your public service record in Santa Cruz. Future application defeats pending. Signed. Johnny eotape." The next day he received a telephone cali from Bresnan's office asking when it would be convenient to negotiate public access in Santa Cruz. In negotiations, TelePrompter agreed to grant free public access time on the system, and to set up workshops for community people with tree loan of video equipment. "If you want to get anywhere. you just have to grab the economie nut and squeeze until they scream," said Alian. As far as Johnny Videotape is concerned, people should be pushing for non-profit leased access channels, not just one public access channel. The way to do it is to set up a non-profit corporation with representation from community groups, which will then lease channels from the cable company for SI per year. You can't make it with just one channel. Ultimately, he thinks everyone should have a channel; senior citizens, freaks, chícanos, anyone who needs it. But it's quite a battle to get non-profit leased access channels out of a cable company that would rather lease channels for profil. Leased channels can now carry advertising. and many sec that as the coming economie base for cable. Last spring Frederiksen helped put together a 13-member minority coalition with representation from groups all over California to demand leased access channels from Cox Communications and American Telecommunications Corporation. Those two companies were negotiating a merger which would make them the second largest multiplc-system operator in the country. The minority coalition won from Cox and ATC an agreement to lease them threc channels on all of the newly merged systems throughout California for $1 a year. The merger is now waiting the result of an intitrust suit initiated by the government. But many proponents of public acccss lelt that the minority coalition's agreement was an cxciting coup. Some didn't. "It's a rip-off." asserted John Bushnell of the Watts Communications Bureau. "The company profits if it works out, and f it doesn't, the minority groups get the ax." Bushnell is speaking from an entirely different perspeetive. The Watts Communications Bureau is a nonprofit, community organi.ation applying for the franchise to build its own cable system in Watts and southeast Los Angeles. Prospects are very good thai they will gct it. They hope to provide a totallv ncw kind otcable service (o the citiens of Watts and southeast Los Angeles. Whal they plan is complete two-way video capacity that will allow any subscriber to cablecast with live video anywhere the cable reaches. The cablecast could be beamed lo only one other CUStomei 01 to all the subscribers, or somc continued on page 18 CtD16 1 V continued f rom page 17 combination in between. It's au extraordinary plan, complctely unique in design. "It's no miracle." Bushnell told me when I responded with astonishmcnt. The design of the system comes from starting al a different place. They starled with the community's needs, and asked the engineers to design the technology to fit them. [f you start with the needs of a large Corporation, of course you're going to get a system that just Iets people people watch, ui push a button that bleeps: yes. I ""II buy; or no. try something else out on me. They wanted a system that would allow people to communicate witli each oilier. to open up, not retreat into more easily manipulable units. The design of the system is fascinating, even to someone who knows nothing about electronics. There is a system of neighborhood loops with the t " - ■'■■ - cable so that different neighborhoods can use the same channels at the same time, effectively multiplying the capacity of the system. There will be 50 portapaks with built-in modulators kept in a central place and loaned out to community people for live origination from their homes, or storefronts, or anywhere they happen to be that has cable. The subscriber fee is set at $3.50, about half the average fee. And the system will be owned and operated by the community. All profits will be put back into the system. The point is that the technology is flexible. Il can be designed in a varicty of ways, depending upon the assumptions about what is necessary. The people of Watts are taking that decisión into their own hands, and the resul t is a completely new Communications system, which opens up new possibilities for people to communieate with each other. Over and over again I am struck by the tremendous potential that cable could have. Instead of producing another little fiefdom of technocrats who who rule an area of our lives by virtue of their expertise, cable could be a technology which is shaped by the imaginations and needs of the people it reaches. Not only could it be a direct Communications link between people, but it could provide almost instant access to all kinds of infermation. It could. Or it miglit turn out to be just an efficiënt funnel for the Hughes Sports Network to its passive fans with breaks to encourage them to munch Fritos at half-time. It's basically a question of who is building and designing the system, and for what. And right down the street, or around the block, is the person who decides that. Your city council representatives set the terms of the franchise and choose the company that will build your cable system. Unfortunately, your average city council representative doesn't know a head end from his vertical hold knob. And the cable companies which are bidding for the franchise are not going to straighten it out for him. At this point, a few informed people could make a big difference.