Sunday, October 10, 1999

'I want my MeTV'

Public Access cable offers quirky options

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Commercial TV zips along like nobody's real life. Its characters never say “um” or talk about themselves too much. In TV land, all jokes are funny, all lawyers are interesting and all musical numbers are brief.

        To understand how distorted this is, consider the homemade shows on cable. Now there's real life, which means certain parts really drag. These programs suffer from the defect of their qualities Their rawness either charms or annoys, depending on your mood.

        Greater Cincinnati is well-served by production centers. This is how council meetings, church services and school news ends up on TV. In nearly every community, ordinary citizens also can make their own shows for free.

        Every year, about $3 million is spent on public-access programming in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, with the potential to reach 281,000 households. This funding comes from fees paid by cable customers. Channel space is provided by cable companies in exchange for their use of public rights-of-way.

        The arrangement isn't sacred. In Ohio this year, Sen. Louis Blessing, R-Colerain Township, proposed a budget amendment that would have killed public access. He wanted local governments to stop requiring special services from utilities, including cable TV. After an outcry from public-access volunteers, the channel agreements were saved.

        In other parts of the country, under-funded PBS stations have talked about merging with public access. PBS officials say they can improve the motley offerings on these channels. Public-access folks claim PBS just wants their money.

        Still, the uneven quality is jarring. Some volunteers are committing truly bad humor. But others give their shows a warmth that can't be found in prime-time.

        One example of the latter Bill Mallory Sr.'s recent interview with Marian and Don Spencer of Cincinnati. The only African-American in Walnut Hills High School's first graduating class, Mr. Spencer recalled being separated from white students for a class picture. This wasn't so bad, he said He got to stand next to his teacher, whose flowery dress complemented the picture.

        These interesting segments aside, some public-access officials would like to do better. Cincinnati public access, for instance, has raised production standards and launched a marketing effort to draw more viewers and producers. The name has been changed from Cincinnati Community Video to Media Bridges Cincinnati. During the first six months of this year, 360 people attended training classes at Media Bridges Cincinnati's studio.

        Another line of thinking goes like this Commercial TV is so all-powerful that the little guy needs whatever air time he can get, even if his show stinks. By law, public access is virtually uncensored. Without this outlet, certain messages would never get out.

        “If you have an audience of one, you have reached somebody,” says Tom Bishop, executive director of Norwood Community Television. “It isn't the numbers that count. It's the adding to the discourse.”

        Public access has the potential to improve communities. But too often, the shows come across like one-sided conversations, dominated by the few with enough free time and passion to get the job done.

        More people need to get involved, and cable professionals need to help them make it snappier. Better shows can protect public access from competing interests that would destroy it.

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Public-access cable centers in Greater Cincinnati
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