|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
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:email@example.com
Note: firstname.lastname@example.org should no longer be used
ROMIntl post on publicaccesstv.net
"Why I Don't Participate in Public Access Television"
Talking Politics Website
Ithaca Public Access