Access for the masses
Public-access television, whose future may hinge on a bill before Congress, is TV's public square - a community outlet for the civic minded, musicians, and even bonsai lovers.
The offices of Cambridge Community Television are lit up with neon and klieg lights, a beacon to passersby who pause to peer through the wall of glass. A CCTV sign glows pink. Winking monitors flash the station's three channels.Skip to next paragraph
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In front there, that's David Stern, hard to miss in a red T-shirt and straw hat. He's about ready to go live with "Shootin' the Breeze," his off-the-cuff weather-cum-humor show. And over in the corner room, the "drive-by gallery," those are Cambridge residents planning their monthly public-affairs news magazine.
It's a typical and bustling evening here at this public-access TV station, where aspiring entertainers and concerned citizens congregate daily to put their messages out to the city. An idiosyncratic patchwork of programming, public access encompasses everything from quirky call-in shows to religious services to live music.
For many viewers, local-access channels are mere speed bumps on the dial between ABC and HBO. But for the people here tonight - and countless others at over a thousand stations around the country - these airwaves, available to all for a nominal fee, have become what Anthony Riddle, executive director of the Alliance for Community Media in Washington, calls "the public square in the electronic age."
That square could soon shrink. Congress is looking at legislation which, while opening cable to competition and greater options, may erode the main revenue stream for CCTV and many of its sibling stations across the country.
But that takes a back seat tonight. On this Monday evening, Jamila Newton is firmly focused on her 30-minute show. Through a small window in CCTV's Edit Room Two, the back of her long, dark braids just visible, she can be seen reviewing footage from "Bandwidth TV," a showcase for local musicians.
By day she's a graduate student in molecular and cell biology at nearby Harvard University. It was as an undergraduate in California that Ms. Newton first got a taste of local broadcasting. She was a DJ at her college's radio station. For Newton, the allure of public TV is that it lets her "take one band and give them more than their 15 minutes of fame," she says.
There are three types of cable, or local, access: public, educational, and governmental. It's on public access that local residents exhibit their work - sometimes inspired, sometimes ridiculous.
At Nutmeg TV in Plainville, Conn., which reaches eight local towns, a viewer can find "Space Age Times," a show that explores space and NASA. "The Art of the Bonsai" explains how to care for the small trees.
In Enid, Okla., on Pegasys, shows like "Take a Ride on the Chisholm Trail" plumb local history. And the "Postcard Show" features a collector who shares the story behind each of his postcards.
Taped in New Jersey at Princeton Community Television and aired on public-access channels throughout the country, "A Fistful of Popcorn" revolves around a panel of local residents who discuss art films.
And this summer, 13- to 25-year-olds in Grand Rapids, Mich., produced the feature-length film called "Kara in Black." This fictional account tells the story of the conflict between two sisters, one who joins the Army while the other is strongly antiwar.
Mr. Riddle, whose organization represents 3,000 channels, estimates that more than 30 percent of programming is religious; 30 percent or so is civic; at least 20 percent is creative, including things like teleplays and children's fashion shows; and another 15 percent is dedicated to sports.