Videomakers face a number of obstacles in the pursuit of producing the perfect video. Untapped niches are becoming harder to find. Technology is changing overnight. And for those of you hoping to pursue the craft full-time, there’s the issue of putting bread on the table.

For many producers, the easiest route to securing equipment access, finding a potential audience and keeping a full stomach is by working for someone else. The tradeoff is that you give up control over content. It’s not your vision up there on the monitor. It’s someone else’s.

There is hope, however. More and more producers are finding public access television an effective and inexpensive way to produce the kinds of shows they want to put on the air. In fact, many public access television centers will allow you to take any idea you like and turn it into video.

They’ll loan you the equipment, teach you how to use it and give you air time on a local cable channel. So what do you need to do? Often all you need is the right demographic profile (i.e., you must live in the geographic area served by the access center) and a small investment in training. Best of all, you can produce for public access television and keep your day job, too.

The Basics of Community Access Television

We have the Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984 to thank for giving us public access television. This act stated that local governments, in their capacities to grant franchises, could make cable operators provide one or more channels for public use as part of their franchise agreements. It does not say, however, that every cable operator has to provide channels for community access. Community access is strictly a function of negotiation between cable operators and the governments in the communities that they serve.

Fortunately, many communities have been prudent enough to ensure access for their citizens. The Alliance for Community Media, a Washington, D.C. based non-profit organization that represents the interests of community programming nationwide, has identified almost 1000 access centers across the country. They acknowledge, however, that the number exceeds that amount.

“We are aware that there are more than 1000 centers,” says Barry Forbes, Executive Director of the Alliance. “And although we’re a little unsure about South Dakota, and we’ve had some difficulty locating centers in Wyoming, there should be at least one access center in every state.”

The Cable Act of 1984 provides for three different kinds of community access–public, educational and governmental (PEG). You will inevitably find the most opportunities through public access, although I will discuss educational and governmental access later.

Public access is for everyone to use, regardless of your background or your agenda. These channels are at the disposal of any person or organization who has something to say to a local audience.

Getting on the Air

Because public access exists on a local level, the rules for using access centers vary from community to community.

“Never say things like ‘most access centers’,” Forbes says, “because there is no such thing. Every community has different rules for use of their facilities.” Nonetheless, there is common ground shared among access centers. According to Karen Toering, Operations Manager for the Milwaukee Access Telecommunications Authority (MATA), the first step is to apply for membership with your local access center.

“To become a member of MATA, you must either be a resident of the city of Milwaukee,” Toering says, “or you must be a non-profit agency serving Milwaukee. Then you have to pay the annual membership fee.” Individual membership in MATA costs either $10 or $25 per year. In either case, you are eligible to produce shows, vote in member elections, and receive the MATA newsletter. The $25 membership, however, gets you discounts off workshop and dubbing fees, and
you get equipment insurance coverage. Toering explained that you then must take an orientation course and three training courses before you can start producing shows. The training courses cost $15 each and explain the basics of video production. This includes legal issues, MATA rules and regulations and nuts-and-bolts stuff like portable field production and editing.

“Every member is required to take these courses because they are specific to MATA,” Toering says. “We realize that many experienced producers may already know how to operate our equipment. But our facility is open to everyone, and everyone must take the training regardless of experience.”

Not every access center charges a fee for these courses. The West Allis Community Communications Corporation (WACCC) is the access center in the suburban Milwaukee neighborhood of West Allis where I live. WACCC charges a $20 annual membership fee, yet charges nothing for the several training programs it requires its members to complete.

Once you successfully complete the training, you’ll receive an ID that grants you equipment and facility access. What happens next is up to you.


No Beta Equipment Here

You’re probably thinking that the equipment available to members must be outdated and old-fashioned. Probably just some old cameras and portable VHS decks–hand-me-downs from the local community college. Just enough stuff to make you feel like you’re producing a real video, right?

Not true. Many access centers have a healthy inventory of prosumer equipment. It might not be Beta-SP, but it’s probably not Beta I, either. In many centers, you will find S-VHS or Hi8 camcorders or docking recorders for field production. And there will be field monitors and lights and lavalier mikes, too.

In the studio (yes, some centers have one) you will look up and most likely see a lighting grid. And–and are those three studio cameras I see? Wow! They even have tally lights! And a teleprompter! Does my $25 a year include the teleprompter? You’re kidding! Is that the control room in there? A phone patch, too? No way!

Participation in public access may be inexpensive, but it is no small potatoes. According to the Alliance, access centers churn out more than 20,000 hours of original programming each week. And they give members the tools to do it. Whether it is field production, studio work, or A/B-roll editing, your local access center will provide you with equipment that is more than adequate to produce a very attractive show.

Locating an Access Center

In spite of the apparent abundance of access centers throughout the country, locating one near you is not always easy. Don’t get too excited until you know for sure whether or not your community has an access center.

You might try contacting your local government first and asking for information regarding public access centers in your area. Your local cable operator would most likely have that sort of information as well.

If you have a little more money to kick around and are curious about the scope of public access nationwide, the Alliance publishes a directory of all the access centers they are aware of.

Surfing the Net

For those of you who have more than a passing acquaintance with cyberspace, many access centers have or are developing Internet addresses and websites on the World Wide Web. According to Kari Peterson, Executive Director of Davis Community Television in Davis, California, the Alliance is currently probing the powers of the information superhighway.

Peterson explained how visitors to the infobahn can find information about public access. “Use a search tool,” she says. “For example, you might look for topics under ‘access’ and ‘television.’ The information you would get that way might lead you to more specialized information that, hopefully, will tell you how to get involved with an access center near you.”

Peterson said that many websites are being developed with direct links to other sites. “You might, for example, find a website for the
southeast region of the United States,” she says. “That site could, in turn, take you to the Anytown Access Center website.”

The Alliance currently has an e-mail address should you wish to contact them electronically. You can reach them at alliancecm@aol.com. The Alliance is developing a website that may be available by the time you read this. E-mail them for more information.

Public Access vs. PBS

Many people confuse public access television with a host of other distribution options. One of these is public television. Public television, better known as PBS, is not the same thing as public access television. For one, they receive their funding from different sources. Many community access centers get funding primarily through franchise fees paid to the local government by the cable operator. Public television, on the contrary, receives funding largely through private fund-raising, state appropriation, corporate underwriting, and Federal grants.

More importantly, it is the program directors at public television stations who decide what goes on the air, and they draw from a large pool of shows produced by high-paid videomakers and filmmakers. In public access television, you decide what goes on the air.

Likewise, do not confuse public access television with leased access. Leased access requires that you purchase time from a cable operator in exchange for the opportunity to run your own commecial messages. Leased access is another way to get on the air. And though it may cost more than public access, it allows you to make money.


Government and Educational Access

Even though public access will be your most viable avenue, you may find limited opportunities in government and educational access.

Government access is just that–information and programming concerning civic affairs. Most of the content deals with local government meetings. And people are tuning in.

“A 1992 survey in our area indicated that 30 percent of local cable subscribers were watching government access television,” says Hap Haasch, Cable Administrator for the City of Ann Arbor, Michigan. “This stuff is very important to our viewers. We don’t dare screw up our coverage of city council meetings or school board meetings. If we do, the phone starts ringing off the hook.”

Educational access is used by those organizations wishing to provide access of a strictly educational nature. You will find many community colleges and continuing education programs making use of this kind of access. Educational access stations often air telecourses as part of continuing education programs. Some public schools produce shows that benefit high-school students as well.

Opportunities for you to produce in these two arenas are not as common for one important reason. Many government and education stations are local origination channels. That means that those who oversee these channels also decide what gets put on the air. They are also responsible for much of the production, as well. As such, they will more than likely have an in-house production staff.

“The educational community wouldn’t participate unless they could be assured of a certain level of production quality,” says Ann Flynn, Executive Director of the Tampa Educational Cable Consortium, better known as the Education Channel, in Tampa, Florida. “We allow volunteers to produce and occasionally write scripts. But the actual shooting and editing falls to our paid staff.”

Flynn adds that the Education Channel is not typical of all educational access centers throughout the country. “We strive to be a PBS clone,” she says. That means they go beyond the telecourses and air a wide variety of educational programs.

More advanced videomakers can take advantage of this situation, however. “We work with five or six contract producers who we pay to develop programs for our center,” Flynn said. “I would say that those kinds of opportunities are available to all video producers.”

The same goes for government access. “The real inroad to broadcasting on government
access is the contract work,” Haasch says.

So What Do I Put on the Air?

The sky’s the limit when you decide what kind of a show to produce. A quick glance at a monthly program schedule for MATA reveals sports talk shows, live religious call-in shows, job hunting forums, and senior citizen programming, just to name a few.

“We have a couple of producers who put on a really wild weekly show,” Toering says. “They ask viewers to call in and report any news they know about. When the caller is through, they try to guess the caller’s age. That’s the extent of it.”

Whatever you decide to produce, remember the ethical responsibilities that come with such freedom of expression. Most access centers will not censor any programming as long as it doesn’t violate the law. But don’t think that you can stir up a hornet’s nest of controversy and then hide behind the shield of the access center. They tend to refer complaints about programming to the producers responsible. In other words, you will take the heat.

Public access may not be half-time-at-the-Super Bowl television, but it is television. And as such, it has the power to influence people. That power is available to you, whoever you may be. If you understand that power and use it responsibly, public access television may just prove to be the production opportunity of your dreams.

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