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Dossier 24 Part 2: Tube Hogs
April 26, 2004: Public access television looks good on paper. In exchange for the franchise for local cable service and the right to run equipment through public property, cable companies agree to provide a certain number of public, educational and governmental (PEG) channels. Federal law makes the issue one of choice, saying localities may require PEG time in exchange for cable franchises. Some states make the exchange mandatory. New York State cable regulations for instance, set a minimum requirement of one public access channel and one combination government and educational channel in every franchise.

Public access channels are for citizens living within the franchise area to use as they see fit. Traditionally and by law in many states, public channel air time is allotted on a first come, first served basis. Since a percentage of the cable company's profits go into the coffers of local government, cable customers are paying for their right to air time. As are taxpayers who support public facilities cable companies utilize.

Public access channels are often called the electronic soapbox. A place where John/Jane Doe can gain a television audience for their particular political or religious vision and where local activists can reach local citizens with information and opinions on home town doings. Not all public access use is earnest. Some take to the air to entertain. Critics claim public access entertainment tends to amateur awful. Or rude and lewd. But homespun awful is at least as interesting as slick awful. If not more so. Plan 9 From Outer Space beats Dud 9 Million from Lethal Weapon any day. And rude and lewd rule mainstream entertainment, so why hold public access to higher standards then say, HBO? But back to the soapbox.

A right on paper to public access, doesn't necessarily mean public access exists. Local politicians frequently turn tube hog. The soapbox thing makes them nervous. Political commentary by citizens on a local public access channel may look small potatoes in the media scheme of things, but never underestimate the desire of little dictators to control every inch of their image. Or the image of their fiefdom the city, town or village they see as an extension of themselves. Megalomania melding nicely with boosterism. Even if local public access laws are citizen friendly, tube hogs are adept at circumvention; no one being more disrespectful of law than pols who believe themselves rulers rather than representatives.

Public access is most easily subverted at the point where local political officials negotiate with cable companies for an area franchise. Tube hogs typically try to prevent the public, who are paying both the pol and the cable company, from having any say in what kind of deal will be struck between the two. If forced into a pretence of public input, tube hogs typically solicit committees of flacks and keep meeting times quiet. Negotiations about public access involve not only air time but access to equipment and training. If cable companies don't provide equipment, they contribute cash for its purchase. Some cable companies see PEG channels as a pain and want little to do with production: they're glad to throw money at pols or their related agencies. Tube hogs also prefer cash-- directed dollars buy clout as well as equipment.

Even if equipment is provided or purchased public access is not assured. Tube hogs try and make access to air time so inconvenient as to be almost impossible. One tactic is to locate studio facilities in a local institution over which the tube hog has influence. And then have the institution limit access. In a 04/03 posting on publicaccesstv.net titled "Why I Don't Participate in Public Access Television" writer ROMIntl describes the tube hog game as played in the village of Downers Grove, Illinois. Where village cable law requires residents to take village classes in order to qualify for air time. A reasonable requirement. The catch? There are no classes! Since qualified citizens are scarcer than hen's teeth, Downers Grove fills the air time with its own booster productions about the glories of life in Downers Grove.

Public access boosterism has also gotten a boost in the New York City Borough of Brooklyn. A much larger village than Downers Grove. Until about 2 years ago, public access at Brooklyn Community Access Television (BCAT) was a place where gritty bassment boys welcomed you to their world and local advocates and activists informed and/or inflamed. Production facilities at BCAT were well equipped. Independent producers interested in achieving professional results could do so. But unlike some public access organizations BCAT is not an independent agency. Oversight of BCAT is the responsibility of a non profit, government related organization called Brooklyn Information and Culture (BRIC). BRIC's mission is to promote Brooklyn. BRIC, by purpose and political tradition, is tied to the office of the Brooklyn Borough President.

In 2002, Marty Markowitz became Borough President. Almost immediately his eyes turned to BCAT. His appointments to the board of BRIC include his former chief of staff Michael Burke, now director of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce's Downtown Brooklyn Council. BCAT's public access air time began to be increasingly dominated by shows produced by none other than-- Marty Markowitz. On the taxpayers dime. The content? Brooklyn's "rich tapestry". Including compelling coverage of a sweet potato pie fest. First come, first served rules for air time and use of the more professional production equipment no longer seemed to apply. Marty and his designated producers got served first. Classes in television production were cancelled and producers who had long running, popular shows had time slashed in order to make way for Marty. Despite BCAT rules which limit shows to 28 minutes, with 2 weekly playbacks typical, Markowitz's "Everything Brooklyn" was 60 minutes long. And if you missed any of his hard hitting hours the first time around, you could catch them in 8 weekly reruns.

Wags began calling BCAT "Marty TV". Several members of the executive staff quit. Rumor had it they choked on sweet potato pie. In March, after many attempts to resolve matters privately and despite a history of friendship, Brooklyn public access producer Ronin Amano filed a petition about Marty Markowitz and BCAT with the New York State Public Service Commission. Ronin Amano produces Rent Wars News, an advocacy program aimed at tenants and small homeowners. One of the show's purposes is to help people who can't afford lawyers, navigate the dungeons and dragons of New York City housing court. Rent War News also interviews politicians and community leaders and presents mini- documentaries and news coverage of housing related events. At times Rent Wars employs animation and a fantasy format, giving advocacy an entertaining twist.

Rent Wars News is an unabashed advocacy show. It addresses an issue about which huge numbers of New Yorkers care deeply. The show's high production values and creative approach has received favorable comment in NYC mainstream press, including the New York Times. Rent Wars News is a prime example of what public access is supposed to be about. And as Thomas Hillgardner, Amano's attorney and general counsel to the Association of Cable Access Producers put it in the 03/20/04 New York Post "God knows the government has enough chances to be heard". Hillgardner says Markowitz's shows belong on a government access channel, not on public access. And if Markowitz wants to appear on public access, he should have to "reach into his own pocket and pay to produce programming...and wait his turn like every other Brooklynite."

In a letter to the newspaper Brooklyn Papers, Marty Markowitz defended himself, saying "I'm not a BCAT hog". And BCAT claims Amano's petition is "without merit". Yet after the petition was filed with the Public Service Commission (where it was upgraded to complaint status) BCAT pulled 6 of Markowitz's 8 time slots. Though to date, BCAT has not restored the time slots which genuine public access producers lost.

Another pol with tube hog proclivities is Bret Schundler, the former mayor of Jersey City. The largest city in Hudson County, New Jersey. Aka-- The Gold Coast. It looks like Schundler will try and be the Republican candidate in the race to replace seriously sullied Governor Jim McGreevey. If Schundler makes it to Trenton, Jersey residents can expect plenty of face time. When Schundler ruled JC, public access was known as "Bret TV". In 1998 Mayor Schundler negotiated a 15 year deal with Comcast for the city's cable franchise. Many citizens were dissatisfied with the terms. The city for instance, received a grant from Comcast to purchase production equipment. The equipment which was purchased was placed under the control of the Mayor's office. Some of it could only be accessed at City Hall.

Mayor Schunder call-in shows and footage of his boosteristic "Slice of Heaven" festivals were a rotating staple on JC public access. They seemed to rotate even more when a mayoral election approached. Meanwhile Schundler had pushed a quality of life litter ordinance through the city council, banning the dropping off, or posting of, election material or neighborhood newsletters on public property. Including housing projects. Which in Jersey City, house major voting blocs. Store flyers were excluded from the ordinance as were the free newspapers published by Joe Barry, a prominent-- though now indicted-- Hudson County developer. Newspapers and store flyers continued to be dumped in heaps on doorsteps and in hallways. But at least public housing residents knew the little tornados of litter whirling through their streets on windy days were political leaflet free.

Bret Schundler is just one form of tube hog in one Hudson County city. As the producers of the public access show, Talking Politics, can attest. TP is produced and hosted by several of Hudson County's most persistent neighborhood activists. The format is talk show. As well as politics TP covers other matters of local interest. The show "Dogs, Dogs, Dogs" has been popular. It could also be the title of a show TP attempted to tape in March 2002 about the then upcoming primary election for Hudson County Democratic Freeholder. The incumbent Freeholder had been indicted on corruption charges and a crowded field of candidates was itching to take his place. Several were being interviewed on tape in studio facilities at North Bergen High Tech High School. Everything was jake until host Bob Duval tossed out the topic of politicians holding multiple positions. A practice some people call "double dipping". This roused candidate Russell Pascale of North Bergen into a rundown of the many hats worn by Nicholas Sacco, Mayor of North Bergen. The mayor's chapeaus included state senator and North Bergen assistant superintendent of schools.

Five minutes later a ferocious baying was heard at the high school studio door. In burst a pack of Hudson County Sheriff's officers responding to "a complaint call". Taping was halted and the tape confiscated. The reason later given was that the producers did not have proper clearance to use the facilities. Though Talking Politics had taped there previously under the same arrangement. Who let the dogs out was never firmly established. Of course Russell Pascale pointed to Mayor Sacco. But Sacco pointed back at Pascale, claiming Pascale had pulled the old Reichstag Fire play.

As mentioned the folks behind Talking Politics are persistent. Despite many obstacles, Mia Scanga, Yvonne Balcer, Bob Duval and others involved with the show go on producing astute, locally focused material year after year. Talking politics isn't non partisan. The producers support certain candidates. One producer has local real estate interests. But impartiality is not what public access is all about. And on Talking Politics, real estate interests don't manifest in wart free booster drivel. Far from it. In Hudson County developers rule. Pay-for-play politics squeeze individual citizens out of the democratic process and massive tax abatements for developers bounce back and bite small property owners. Both issues have been a consistent focus of Talking Politics. Recent shows include "The Flintkote 20 Year Condo Tax Abatement" and "Hoboken: Pay to Play Politics". And not only can you catch Talking Politics on cable; it's now being streamed on the Web. A savvy step by a group of very savvy soapbox veterans.

The nature of the public in different franchise areas determines the nature of public access. The electronic soapbox thrives in Ithaca, a central New York State town with an individualistic Bohemian tradition. Public access air time on Channel 13, under the aegis of Time Warner, is in demand and has a solid audience. Both training and equipment are genuinely accessible. Management is responsive. Programming covers a wide range of opinion from Christian inspirational, to left of center, to indefinable. The latter includes talk show, For The Duration, hosted by Robin Palmer. Palmer, who was born in Ithaca, has journeyed a particularly American dissident life. He was a high school English teacher in New York City, before touching down in that city's Vietnam War driven, ultra radical culture of the 60's. Busted along with a group of others for a failed attempt to bomb a bank, he was sent to Attica Prison. Just in time for the 1971 riot. Though Palmer has always followed his beliefs, sometimes into dark places, he was never an ideologue with a checklist of predictable positions. Now living with his wife in the house where he grew up, he's a member of the Rotary Club. A bit of a booster. He calls himself a Republican yet remains involved in "Remember Attica" causes. Though he still believes the Vietnam War was wrong, he supports the war in Iraq. And gay marriage. A recent edition of For The Duration featured an interview with a gay man married in New Paltz. And Palmer is always up for a good conspiracy show about Who Killed Kennedy. If he isn't too busy demonstrating against Senator Hillary Clinton. A few years ago Palmer--and his dog-- were arrested for doing just that when Hillary spoke at a local college. Though later, after a lot of legal wrangling, she did send him a written apology.

Roughly 3 hours east of Ithaca lies the city of Albany, the capital of New York State. Lack of sufficient access to public access has been a long time sore point with some of the city's neighborhood associations. Albany Mayor Gerald R. Jennings (aka The Burgermeister) tends to believe it's his way or the highway. And his way definitely doesn't include the possibility of constituents being caught on camera dissing the leadership of Jerry Jennings. Time Warner's cable franchise is up for renewal and Jennings is keeping public input carefully contained. But perhaps Jennings needn't get his knickers in a twist. Some of the very same people who want more public access also fret when letters saying bad things about conditions in Albany appear in the local newspaper, The Albany Times Union. Worrying such letters discourage suburbanites from buying Albany real estate. After ho hoing such hyper sensitivity, consider this: how likely is it these folks would mount the electronic soapbox and honestly discuss local conditions? Or if they obtained any control over public access programming, encourage others to do so? Since Mayor Jennings himself has taken the Albany Times Union to task for fostering negative crime "perceptions", it would seem as if both Burgermeister and a goodly number of his burghers were tuned to the same channel.

Local politicians can throw up major roadblocks between citizens and public access television. But the worst enemy of the electronic soapbox-- or for that matter any conduit of citizen speech-- is not politicians but an acquiescent or apathetic public. The USA is still remarkably free when it comes to speech. No politician can totally blot out or distort the public voice unless the public lets it happen. If a conduit of communication does get closed down, the determined kick up a fuss and/or move on to another soapbox. Like Rent Warrior Ronin Amano in Brooklyn. Or the Hudson County crew at Talking Politics who just keep on coming-- and evolving. Or Robin Palmer who wrung an "I'm sorry" out of a Clinton. Or like ROMintl in the village of Downers Grove in Illinois, who hit the Net to tell the story of how local tube hogs had gobbled up all the air.

Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff

For confidential tips and comments mailto:editor@mondoqt.com

Note: ontheqt@nycap.rr.com should no longer be used

Links

ROMIntl post on publicaccesstv.net
"Why I Don't Participate in Public Access Television"

Rentwars Website
http://www.rentwars.com/

Talking Politics Website
http://www.talkingpolitics.net/

Ithaca Public Access
http://twcny.com/peg/
 

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Copyright (c) 2004 by Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff. This material may be freely distributed subject to the terms and conditions set forth in the Open Publication License. This license relieves the author of any liability or implication of warranty, grants others permission to use the Content in whole or in part, and insures that the original author will be properly credited when Content is used. It also grants others permission to modify and redistribute the Content if they clearly mark what changes have been made, when they were made, and who made them. Finally, the license insures that if someone else bases a work on this Content, that the resultant work will be made available under the Open Publication License as well.


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