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.
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In 1984, under the provisions of the Cable Act, public-access stations began in earnest. Historically, community television has been a forum particularly friendly to immigrants and minorities, groups regularly overlooked by the larger networks. (Manhattan alone has 95 foreign-language serials on public-access TV.)Skip to next paragraph
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In the late '80s, a group of Hmong refugees from Asia were resettled in the Minneapolis- St. Paul area. Their resettlement classes happened to be held in the same converted school building that housed the public-access station.
A people with a strong oral tradition who for centuries had no written language, they learned to connect with one another via video, one year filming 24 hours of a New Year's celebration. Surveys showed that virtually every one of the 25,000 Hmong in the area at the time watched public access.
While general viewership might not be so high - there are no Nielsen ratings for public-access channels - the program creators don't seem to mind. Mr. Stern, host of the weekly weather show in Cambridge, says he first got involved with public access "to find an outlet for [his] artistic expression." The pianist and composer once produced a 30-minute segment on a chef at the Green Street Grill, a local restaurant. "Exploring Expression," which searched for "the spiritual connection" to food, was meant to be part of a series. But that first, and last, episode took six months to make - roughly 10 hours for each minute that aired.
Stern compares CCTV to a coffee shop. "It's an inspiring place, a bustling place," he says. "It keeps one motivated and focused. There are a lot of young people who come in and try to do shows. Some succeed, some don't. But it's a great way for young people to aspire - they're surrounded by people who are doing wonderful things."
Last year, more than 17,000hours of original, local programming appeared on CCTV.
Proponents of the three amendments before Congress, which include "The Broadband Investment and Consumer Choice Act," introduced by Sen. John Ensign (R) of Nevada and supported by Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, say the purpose is to reform outdated laws and open the telecom market - now dominated by cable companies - to competition from other providers such as phone companies. Many directors of community television stations say that without franchise fees, which may be lost in the new legislation, they won't be able to survive.
Next month, CCTV's pink neon sign will be masked, the station's windows shrouded in brown paper. In an effort to show what they fear may happen if the bills before Congress are passed, CCTV has planned a brownout for Oct. 17.
On 25,000 televisions across Cambridge, Channels 9, 10, and 22 will go dark.
Want your own TV show? Most stations require local residents to attend an orientation session and pay a small annual fee.
Membership may include workshops on everything from operating cameras and lighting equipment to digital editing, plus access to the station and its equipment.
As a rule, stations are open to all local residents. They will usually accept both single shows and serials. And members may sponsor programs produced outside the community.
Local access is nonprofit and commercial-free, which is why stations rely so heavily on the franchise fees that cable providers have been required to funnel back into communities as payment for using streets and other public rights-of-way to lay their wires.
For a partial listing of local stations near you, go to: www.communitymedia.se/ cat/linksus.htm