R.I.P. Public Access Television

Here in Los Angeles, the city rang in the New Year by closing down all of its public access TV studios, signaling an end to homegrown, grass roots production of eclectic and often monumentally weird alternative programming. Cities in Michigan, Illinois and Indiana are also shutting down facilities, and if the amount of locally-based “save public access” postings on the Internet are any indication, the trend is continuing.

Of course, there was never any money in it, and now that the economy is in the crapper something that costs and has no return is just begging for the chopping block. Not to mention, some argue, the notion of the individual cranking out outsider material has long since been co-opted by YouTube. But YouTube is largely the outlet for quick hits, easily digestible visual jokes, rants or parakeets dancing to the Village People. And while many out there may wonder why it is worth mourning a TV channel that usually features seventy-three different talk shows each featuring the same potted plant, I think one would be remiss, especially in a career-based column, if one did not compose a short eulogy for a format that contained a heaping helping of what it takes to get ahead in this world: passion.

People who create public access programming do it because they must. They are overtaken by a muse that will not permit them to do otherwise. How many of us can claim that on a good day? So, no one is hiring in his or her particular field of interest? No matter: they will create the need in the marketplace with their very existence. Granted, it is a small, even perhaps microscopic marketplace, but if I knew that each of the candidates I interview for my search firm, whether or not I could place them in the job of their choice, would still be determined to shoot their own TV show, entitled, perhaps “The Executive Washroom Variety Show” (and you better believe it would actually take place in a bathroom) I might be inclined to give them a touch more respect than I normally would, just for their sheer chutzpah.

The entire idea of getting out there and doing it is intrinsic to our cultural landscape. So who are we to govern what might constitute the getting out there, or the doing it for that matter? There are (sorry, were) several cable access programs in the Los Angeles area that have been running on a nearly weekly basis for over twenty years. Compare that with the amount of turnover in the private sector, and you get some idea of the dedication inherent in these resolutely individualistic souls. Webster’s defines “career” as “consecutive progressive achievement.” So, in one interpretation of that phrase a person works their way up through the chain of command to be a CEO; in the other, someone spends twenty years interviewing such luminaries as the stars of a local production of “Jesus Christ, Superstar” or looking directly into the camera and ranting about everything from alien probes to, well, more alien probes.

But who is to say whose pursuit is the more pointless? What does the work/life balance movement teach us if not how nothing will truly fall apart if we take a little breather and leave a task undone in the process. In other words, in the whole vast scheme of things, we with our “jobs” and our “salaries” (we who can certainly count ourselves lucky to have them in this economy, no doubt) may, in the long run, not be having very much of an impact on the landscape or the fabric or the zeitgeist or whatever you want to call it. Can I honestly say that simply by virtue of my so-called station in life that I am inherently contributing more to the continuance of civilization than an overweight woman in a spangly tutu dancing in front of blue screen projections of herself dancing in a spangly tutu? (Such a program really does (sorry, did) exist here on cable access.) I cannot say with any accuracy what my contribution to the world has been, but I sure as hell know I’m not dancing while I’m doing it.

 

And before we get on our high horse about how fringe or self-indulgent some of these programs may be, it should be noted that several other, more serious informational shows produced in local markets around the country were often part of a syndication network, allowing them to be broadcast in a number of other cities in the U.S. And the alternative news outlet The Full Disclosure Network is the only public access program to have won an Emmy, It has been up and running since 1992. That, by any estimation, is a career.

 

So, let us hard-working Americans raise a toast to another set of hard-working Americans: the originators of unique (and, yes, sometimes freakishly disturbing, but so what?) television at the recently-departed and still-remaining community access television stations across the country. Just because these people never got paid for it doesn’t mean they didn’t have jobs to do.

 

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2 Comments

  • Jack Durban

    May Buggy whip makers, newspapers, and taxpayer shake down funded public television enjoy their retirement.

  • Jason Tagg

    Thanks to a lot of grass-roots organizing, protest and the support of the City Council, MNN - Manhattan's four public cable access channels secured a twelve year extension through the city's new franchise agreement with Verizon. Details at mnn's website: http://www.mnn.org/

    Interesting factoid from MNN: "MNN present[s] every year on average about 20,043 hours of locally-produced programs in more than 30 different languages. This makes MNN not only the country's most diverse and prolific broadcaster, but the world's. There is no other single broadcaster anywhere on the planet, commercial or non-commercial, that airs the amount and diveristy of material we do."

    Disclosure: one of those programs is "Midnight Ukulele Disco" - my weekly ukulele talkshow.