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Public-access TV gains cachet ... and new viewers

By Special to The Christian Science Monitor / January 2, 2002


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.

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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.

Alternative to regular TV

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.