Cable TV: Leased Access

Leased access means one thing to the independent videomaker–opportunity. No other “institution” offers
such a great outlet for viewership, profit and personal satisfaction. Finally, one-person production
companies have the means to broadcast their work to the masses. And, most importantly, the means to
reach these masses in a reasonably affordable manner.

For those still in the dark on leased access, here’s a little history. Leased access is a government ruling that says cable systems around the country must, if they meet certain specifications, provide channel
capacity at a reduced “leasing” rate. This cost comes from a formula (see sidebar for details) that takes into
account the number of viewers in the cable system, their rates, and the length of time of the leasing period.
Usually sold in half-hour units, leased access time around the country generally costs anywhere from $50-
$100 for a 30-minute block. So for less than the cost of a new pair of sneakers, you can command the
airwaves, potentially cablecasting your message to tens of thousands of viewers.

So far so good, right? Well, I saved the best for last. Not only does leased access availability allow
videomakers a showcase for their work, it also allows this activity in a commercial atmosphere. Unlike
public access and the other government television involvement, leased access rules state that commercial
material within the programming is fair game. In other words, you can sell advertising time within your

Unfortunately, like any program that comes to the aid of those in need, leased access has its detractors. Who are these folks wanting to impede the progress of videomakers nationwide? Believe it or not, they’re the cable system operators themselves. Admittingly, they do stand to “lose” the most in the deal. Giving up channel capacity for low-budget, semi-pro productions that may interest only a small percentage of the systems’ subscribers can’t be an attractive proposal.

Nor is the fact that they must now deal with the producers on a personal level. Programming for leased access won’t be coming via satellite downlink or distribution cassette. It will be walking in the door,
videomaker extraordinare attached. And don’t think for a second this indie producer won’t be full of
questions about airtimes, preferred formats, commercial insertion and a hundred other variables of the
broadcast. These questions may push a cable employee to the limits of his patience. Cable systems want
leased access on their system about as much as you would want a tripod with one non-tightening leg.

This is not just a sour-grapes discussion. I make the above statements based on personal experience, as well as the experience of others. Stories of unfair rates, unavailable air times, uncooperative technicians and general bullying run rampant in leased access circles. Consider yourself warned!

Success Story

Don’t assume that all cable system operators are out to stop leased access. Some leased access
producers have found success with their local cable stations. Take Donice’s Home Shopping
, for example. It’s one of the first home shopping programs created exclusively for use on
leased access. Nobody ever said anything about not using leased access in this manner, so why not? In
fact, in Section 612 of the FCC Report Concerning Leased Access actually describe these types of
programs specifically.

According to the government paper, lease programmers fall into three groups. The first are those
seeking to charge subscribers in a pay-per-view environment. Second are home shopping types. In this
category, more than 50% of the leased cable time is used to sell products directly to customers. The final
group is a catch-all for educational, community and non-profit minded affairs. Rudy Dyson, creator of
Donice’s Home Shopping Channel, found success behind door number two.

“I had experimented with local access for a bit. It gave me some insight on the workings of cable,” says the Los Angeles-based entrepreneur. “When I heard about leased access, my mind starting working. I knew home shopping was becoming more popular everyday. It appears like everything’s a bargain. I’ve also always been intrigued at how well the classified ads and weekly shoppers do in selling products. So I
immediately thought, why not merge the two? Classified shopping television was born in Los

Dyson’s first show, Donice’s Second-hand Home Shopping Hour was the genesis of his current program. In it, people who had something to sell would buy classified space much like in a newspaper. Only this time, their product appears on TV. Dyson made his profit by selling parts of the hour for more than the whole was worth. “Basically, it was a swap meet on the air,” continues Dyson. “The hometown appeal of the program garnered its initial audience. But it became too labor intensive for the money. I had to run all around town taping people’s cars or stereos or whatever. The show had a following, but for what I was making, it was too hard to produce. I knew there had to be an easier way to do it.”

Thus Dyson entered his second step of home-shopping mogulism. “With the new show, all we do is sell new product. It’s run just like the shopping networks you see elsewhere, QVC and HSN. I’ve found
sources for merchandise where I don’t have to inventory the product. Accepting credit cards helps too. It
makes it easy for the people to buy,” he says.

Donice’s doesn’t accept just any credit card, though. Dyson has created his very own, and that’s where the profit comes from. “We make instant credit available to anyone, providing they meet one of our requirements. The person must have another credit card or own real estate. If they do, an application is filled out and a card is issued.” This “instant credit” is what made Dyson’s show take off. “If it’s a hassle, there’ll be no sales. People like to use credit. They see something they like. They call. It’s theirs. And I make much more money in financing than I did with the straight sales. Why do you think all the major stores have their own credit cards? It’s the same principle,” says Dyson.

Non-profit, For Now

Greg Blubaugh is tackling leased access from a different angle. Honing his video expertise in small town
America, Blubaugh discovered leased access through a conversation with a local state representative. “At a
city parade I happened to be videotaping for a college course, I got to interview a state representative who
lived in neighboring Akron. He was something of a video nut himself, expressing interest in the pro-level
equipment I was using. We got to talking and he informed me of leased access.” Blubaugh’s small town
didn’t offer leased access, but the close-by Akron cable system did.

“I’ve been shooting video on a variety of topics: documentary stuff on children and violence,
informational programs on the schools in our area, mostly educational shows,” Blubaugh says. “Most I did
as assignments in college, but sometimes I would produce these shows on my own, in the hopes of
someday finding an audience. I could always show them to the groups involved, but that audience was
never large enough. With leased access, I can now reach thousands of people. Whether they’re watching or
not is still a question. But at least I know it’s available to everyone in the cable system.”

Blubaugh is just starting to experiment with the commercial side of leased access. In the past, Blubaugh simply paid the leased access fee and placed his programming on the air. Now he’s got dollar bills in his eyes. “I’m trying to convince several interior decorators in the area to sponsor a home decorating program,” he says. “There are plenty of design houses, furniture stores and wallpaper/paint shops in the city. If I can gather three or four, give them each 15 minutes of airtime to explain a design idea, I’ll have an hour program that should be pretty interesting to a wide number of people. Plus, I’ll be able to cover the cost of the airtime and make money.”

Breaking In

Now that we’ve piqued your interest, what’s the next step? First, find out if your cable system meets
the requirements of the leased access provisions. A simple call to your cable operator may or may not
answer this question. In my first foray into the world of leased access, a nearby cable system did qualify.
Yet when I called, I got responses ranging from, “What’s leased access?” to “I’m not sure that is available,”
and finally a flat “No.” Don’t be discouraged if you meet such resistance. Some simple research into the
demographics of your local cable system will produce the correct answer.

If you do get a positive response to your inquiry, the next step is to delve into the cost of air time.
Chances are good that the system is charging some arbitrary rate, much higher than that dictated by leased
access provisions. You may have to point out the formula before receiving the government-prescribed
pricing structure. Or you may get lucky, finding complete cooperation from your friendly cable provider.
This scenario does take place, just not as often as it should.

Maybe your cable system didn’t meet the specified requirements, meaning they don’t have to provide leased access. Not to worry–most people live near another cable system. And chances are good that this neighboring cablecaster does qualify for leased access provisions. That’s exactly how I got started. My home system only supports around 17,000 viewers, which is too small for leased access. But the system in our neighbor county reaches more than 100,000 citizens. That’s plenty of folks for low-rate cable
broadcasting. Just be persistent in your search of systems. Sooner or later you’ll locate one already actively
involved with leased access, or is at least willing to embrace leased access once you talk with them.

On With the Show

So you’ve found a cable system willing to cooperate with you in providing leased access time. Now
you’ve got the dilemma of what to show on your program.

If you are a resourceful person, you may be able to recycle something on your shelf into acceptable programming. At first, the profitability of the venture may not be a concern. It may just be a self-satisfying exercise in finding a potentially large audience for your work. In this case, just bite the bullet, pony up the cash and put your program on the air. It’s a good feeling to be able to flick on the tube and catch some credits that feature your name.

Some of you may actually have something already on tape that presents commercial opportunities. Be creative. Explore any possible angle you can think of that might put some money into your pockets. Own some footage of a local disaster such as a flood, fire or tornado? Create a program around that footage, adding interviews with people involved and scenes of the accident “one year later.” Interest hometown insurance companies as sponsors.

Maybe you’ve got some “funny” footage of youngsters. Place an ad in the paper seeking other “funny home videos.” Gather local retailers to donate prizes and cash prizes for the winner in exchange for
commercial time during the show. Just be sure to keep enough of the green stuff to pay yourself and the
leased access costs. You might even charge a nominal “entrance” fee from participants.

If you possess footage or programming that is very general with broad, wide-reaching appeal, you
should consider buying leased access time not only locally, but across the country. The same low-cost rates
are available in many large cities, and if your programming is a success locally, it can also succeed
nationwide. Unfortunately, as of this writing, there’s no guidebook to all of the leased access channels in
the United States. So the research for this type of “buy” may be very time consuming. A good start,
however, is to consult Videomaker‘s sister publication, The Leased Access Report.

One of the greatest needs of any videomaker is the public viewing of his or her work. Until now, finding an audience–and more importantly, an avenue to reach this audience–has been tough. Now, thanks to leased access, you’ve been given the audience and the avenue. It’s yours for the taking.

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.

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