RALEIGH, N.C. — Thanks to his local cable-access talk show, Todd Morman can't go to the local grocery store without getting a wink, a nod, a diatribe, or a scowl.
The call-it-like-he-sees-it talk-show host chats about gay issues. He's outspoken in his opposition to US bombardment in the war on terrorism. And, sometimes, he uses a furry toy puppet to - as he puts it - "say all the things that I can't say." For Raleighites, his weekly "Monkey Time" show is a chance to hear alternative viewpoints they don't often hear voiced on regular television.
Mr. Morman's quirky success story illustrates a larger trend: While most of public- access television is dominated by broadcasts of poorly miked zoning-board hearings and the kind of kooky, basement-produced shows that inspired the movie "Wayne's World," several channels are displaying a new degree of professionalism. Many of the them air innovative shows that critics say are the some of the most vibrant coverage of real-life America today.
"There are shows on our channel that get more local viewers than the Home Shopping Network," Morman says. "I think most people grossly underestimate the interest and number of people watching cable-access TV."
Created in 1984 by Congress to guarantee "local origination" programming on the cable grid, public access cable TV has come a long way from cheap productions made by "citizen producers" with second-hand cameras and dusty VCRs. As cable has grown from 52 million to 73 million households in the past 10 years, cable access has only become more fine-tuned to local mores and interests.
A survey conducted by Cobb County's TV 23 found that the channel is a regular stop on the dial for 80 percent of residents in that hilly Georgia burg. The TV 23 logo and the anchors' haircuts are nearly indistinguishable from those of the local network affiliate.
In Chicago, a public- access station airs full-length documentaries and soap operas.
A recent wartime roundtable on Carolina TV featured local luminaries such as Duke's Scott Silliman, an international relations expert who regularly appears on the networks. Raleigh's "Larry Pickett Show," devoted to hip-hop music, regularly features nationally known rappers.
In Concord, Mass., public-access shows range from "Politically Incorrectable," a show on local politics to "Reel Talk," a movie-review show.
Cities are not required to have a public-access television station. The cable act does stipulate that local cable operators must provide 5 percent of their local annual revenues to communities that do set up a local channel. While the makeup of cable-access channels differs from city to city, it's not unusual for communities to set up nonprofit corporations to operate cable access studios.
While Neilson, the TV ratings corporation, doesn't study ratings for cable-access channels, experts say there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that overall viewership of public-access television is up. From Portland, Ore., to Cobb County, Ga., dozens of shiny new public studios have sprung up in recent years, rivaling even the resources of local TV networks - and replacing the endemic blurry picture with crisp colors and well-tuned sound.
"Public access is actually a hot commodity these days," says Cheryl Luenza of the Media Action Project in Washington. "In fact, interest in this very local kind of programming is only increasing as we see more consolidation of media at the commercial level. People are beginning to crave something different, something that's not so 'network.' "
This burst of underground TV programming comes, some experts say, at a time when Americans are growing tired of the "MTV edit," the quick-cut, go-for the-throat programming that dominates the mass-market stations today. Instead, channel hoppers are tuning into shows like "Driveways of the Rich and Famous," a public-access show in Hollywood. With no commercial pressure to succeed - and responsible only to local decency standards - cable access, TV critics say, has largely lived up to its hope of becoming a town square of the TV age.
"We do all kinds of stuff," says John Wefler, the programming manager at the Evanston, Ill., public access channel. "We have a local Letterman type of person, a variety show where local bands come on, there's a movie reviewer show, which has live call-ins, there's a live clergy talk-type show, and we actually work with the local school district to produce a game show with local kids."
In Portland, Ore., a whole new community has been created, thanks to the "The Chess Show," a call-in game show that brings viewers together to play chess on their TV screens.
The first year, several callers ended up playing against themselves. But gradually it has caught on, and now the lines are always busy with folks wanting to play. Each show has a theme: Chess Noir, Let's make a Chess Deal, the Miss America chess Pageant, Chessapolooza. Music videos are shown and computer effects are used to intercut the game with chess scenes from movies. When someone is "checked," the chess master plays a clip from the famous human-chess-set scene from the TV show "The Prisoner." Not surprisingly, last year the show won a Hometown video award, the cable-access version of he Golden Globes.
"We make a lot out of nothing," says Cybele, the show's host. "You don't get all the hairspray and make-up on cable access. It's a slice of life, what the average person is interested in and capable of."
For the hosts of cable access, there are perks that go beyond the non-existent pay. Grocery- store fame is certainly part of it, as they become the alter egos of TV land. Cybele, the host of Portland, Oregon's "The Chess Show," carries little joke cards around with her that she gives to her admirers in Aisle 6. For producers like Larry Pickett, the star of Raleigh's "Larry Pickett Show," hosting a show is an opportunity to meet national hip-hop stars as they roll through town, taking calls from fans.
But for most "citizen producers," the draw isn't fame. To a large extent, public studios are largely inhabited by creative crowds from the local community college, cutting their editing teeth on the public's production equipment. Many of the producers are driven by a basic desire to get to the bottom of things in their hometown. And, in some communities, public-access television fills a special niche when it comes to local politics: the "government channel."
Just north of traffic-packed Atlanta, Cobb County has built what may be the most modern public TV studio in the country: Two master controls and a digital editing suite, hooked up to a full-sized studio worthy of CNN. The biggest draw at TV 23 is local politics, especially when it has to do with doing any more building in the ultra-dense suburbs of Atlanta North.
TV 23 manager Robert Quigley explains that, with Atlanta being so big and divvied up, it's hard for traditional media to provide basic information about happenings and local issues. So on TV 23, you might see scrolling shots showing the traffic flow during a snowstorm, as well as coverage of local parades, music shows and slickly-produced "magazine" style shows.
Today, most cable access shows have a call-in component. Indeed, many say cable access originated the whole trend of "interactive TV." Unlike on a national show, callers are likely to get through.
"This is one of the keys of public access that makes it so much more intense for the viewer: you can talk back to your television set," says puppet-wielding talk-show host Todd Morman. "It's an incredibly valuable tool to be able to serve people thoughtfully, a little more slowly, and much more honestly, without the glitz and hype of normal TV."
Even some critics are acknowledging their fascination with public-access TV.
On a trip to Portland, Maine, this summer, Chicago Tribune critic Steve Johnson happened to catch a local access program featuring two Mainers having a rambling conversation full of off-the-wall observations, intercut with snippets from the Bill Murray movie "Stripes." The critic was mesmerized. The local performers acknowledge that the content is often cheesy - but that's part of the appeal, Mr. Johnson says.
"It's a high-wire act, and seeing these people trying to pull this off, that is fascinating," says Johnson. "There's a certain dramatic tension, maybe not in what they're saying, but just in the fact that it's being done."