Public-access TV gains cachet ... and new viewers
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"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."Skip to next paragraph
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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."