Saturday, July 28, 2007

Public access television is the original YouTube

Vito just might be the next godfather of community television.

Vito and characters like him are what you’ll find when switching the television dial and tuning in to public access television stations across New Hamphire. Vito “The Pug” Corleone has his own cable show that airs on Concord Community Television, Monday through Thursday, at 7 a.m., 10 a.m., and 7 p.m. The show opens with a deep, Marlon Brando-from-The Godfather-like voiceover, “Pull up a bone. Put your feet up. Don’t make me send Clemenza over, you don’t want to sleep with the fishes.”

Vito’s cable show, Vito’s Pet Family, features Vito “The Pug” Corleone and his owner, Concord City Councilor, Katherine Rogers. The show covers all aspects of owning a pet and being one, like Vito. Vito is a 3-year-old fawn Pug that enjoys kissing his studio guests at the start of every show.

“He met and fell in love on the show with one of his guests, a little French dog named Ally,” Rogers said. “He’s the only dog she lets smell her butt … in the dog world, that is quite romantic.”

Having a television show has made Vito a local celebrity and, while he may not be nominated for a daytime Emmy anytime soon, his show is among the growing group of popular locally produced shows airing on public access stations across the state.


Citizen media is alive and well in New Hampshire — local high school football games, city council meetings, downtown parades and pontificating local politicians.

Ever since the 1984 cable franchise act, cable companies have been required to fund local municipalities so they are able to provide training and access to media technology. The reason behind the law was the growth of the cable television industry. As cities and towns began contracting for cable TV service, municipalities were concerned that the cable companies were using public by-ways (such as roads and sidewalks to run cable wires) to make a profit. Many local leaders believed some form of “rent” should be paid for their use. U.S. cable companies were then required to provide a percentage of revenue from the cable TV subscription fees to provide public access to the cable systems.

Public access is commonly referred to as PEG, for “public, education and government,” television. By law, cities and towns may require the cable companies to pay up to five percent of gross revenues as franchise fees. The actual percentage is negotiated in the contract and can be less, but no more. Also, the law allows communities to require a franchise fee, but it doesn’t mandate that one be collected. If a fee is collected, there is no requirement that the franchise fee be spent on public access television, which means it’s perfectly fine for municipalities to take the fee and put it in its general fund, which some communities in New Hampshire do. Advocates for public television don’t like that practice.

“This is where the double-dipping thing comes in to play. Should a cable subscriber’s franchise fee payment be used to offset everyone else’s taxes?” said Dottie Grover, president of New Hampshire Coalition for Community Media, a statewide organization that promotes and fosters PEG access. Members of the organization are access center managers, local producers and volunteers who have an interest in promoting and preserving free speech through PEG access television.

“There are still communities in New Hampshire that are not aware that this is a resource that could be made available to them and we are reaching out to them,” Grover said.

“We have been over to Nashua and have helped them out, and they recently activated their educational channel and are in the process of putting together their studio,” Grover said. “Public access [in Nashua] is down the road.”

In Portsmouth, the city has been running a government channel and only recently agreed to consider expanding the public’s access to cable. The money is there. Comcast pays Portsmouth five percent of every dollar paid by cable subscribers, which amounts to about $280,000 a year. That money, except for about $9,000 which goes to support the one government channel, goes into Portsmouth’s general fund. Depending on the size of the community and its contractual agreement with the cable provider, PEG may take many forms. Some cities and towns run the stations, some run only a portion of the access prong, and others leave it up to separate organizations to provide PEG programming. In Concord, Concord Community TV (CCTV) is a 501(c)3 licensed nonprofit that operates the PEG access center and TV studio. In Manchester, the public access station (MCAM), which is run as a nonprofit, is separate from Manchester’s Education and Government Access Center (MCTV), which is run as a department of the City of Manchester. When it comes to access television in New Hampshire, no two communities or stations are exactly alike.

Manchester’s two stations

Cable subscribers in the Queen city have three different public access options: channels 16, 22 and 23.

In Manchester, the education and government stations (Channel 16 and Channel 22) are run by MCTV, which stands for Manchester Community Television. The MCTV studio is located at the Manchester School of Technology, on South Porter Street, and is operated by Grace Sullivan. MCTV receives operational funding from the city of Manchester’s general fund, with the school district the designated access provider. Channel 16, the education access channel, can be picked up in Manchester as well as the surrounding towns of Auburn, Candia and Hooksett. Government access programming can be seen on Comcast cable Channel 22 in the city of Manchester.

For the public access component of PEG there is MCAM-TV23, which is Manchester Community Access Network, a nonprofit organization located on North Commercial Street in Manchester’s Millyard. The public access station split from MCTV in 2005.

“There were a number of reasons, it mostly had to do with the location. It was [MCTV] in the School of Technology and that was not necessarily the appropriate environment [for public access] when you are bringing in members of the public to do television,” said Joe Lahr, station manager for Channel 23. “Certainly, free speech television can be volatile and having it on under the direct auspices of the school district was not appropriate.”

While the split was something that Sullivan says she advocated for, she did not anticipate fighting for funding.

“When it happened, they went down [to Millyard], the city gave them a lot of money up front and we went on to concentrate on education and government,” Sullivan said. “And then the city guaranteed them money and they didn’t give us money and that left us vulnerable — now all of a sudden we were zero funded.”

Faced with going off the air, Sullivan flew in to advocacy mode.

“What was good about it [was that] we had a strategic plan in place, we went out and talked to people in the community and we advocated and the money was put back in the budget, but it was months of advocating,” Sullivan said. Today, Manchester’s education and government programming is in one of its strongest positions ever. Beginning in 2008, channel 16 and channel 22 will receive two percent of the city’s five-percent franchise fee.

MCAM will continue to receive one percent of the franchise fee, and because it is a nonprofit it is able to raise additional funds for operational costs. The remaining two percent of the cable franchise fee will remain in Manchester’s general fund.

I want my MCTV

Sullivan and her crew can be seen at City Hall Plaza taping the latest “Buskers on the Bricks” or behind the bases at Gill Stadium covering the local Sweeney Post Little League team for Game of the Week. MCTV is local programming about events that affect the lives of the cable subscribers in Manchester. MCTV is also the source for political programming without spin. Sullivan said any person running for any office on any ballot that will end up in Manchester is offered free time to address the voters.

“Whether it be the mayor, a state senator or if you are on the ballot, we sent out letters to give [candidates] time,” Sullivan said. “We want people to participate in democracy.”

During the last presidential primary, MCTV invited all the candidates in to their studio to tape their own five-minute unedited segment on why they should be president. Sullivan said public access allows for pure democracy and says her station has played and will continue to play a greater role in the presidential primary.

“Local access media means everybody will get time in public access…. We do C-Span stuff, here’s your time to say what you want,” Sullivan said. “And people are able to participate in democracy … here is what [the candidates] are saying, unfiltered and directly to you.”

In addition to politics, public access is playing an increasingly important role in the community in showing events when they happen rather than having viewers wait for the 6 o’clock news. MCTV has recently installed the equipment needed to go live from the Manchester Police Station.

“My drive is not to beat out WMUR, my goal is to get out information to people who live in the city [about] what is going on. If you have helicopters overhead and police cruisers in neighborhoods and you are a 70-year-old person, you can turn on Channel 22 — government access — and see the press conference at 11 a.m. rather than at 12 noon, which they [WMUR] are going to cut,” Sullivan said. “We are going to show the entire press conference.”

Psychics, wrestling and gadflies

The difference between MCTV and MCAM is that on MCAM anything goes. Anyone who lives in Manchester who wants to have a television show can be on MCAM. It is on Channel 23 where one will find everything from Sunday church services at the First Baptist Church to Norm’s Psychic World.

For the last five years, Norm Moody, a self-proclaimed psychic, has been doing readings for guests who come on his show. Moody said he has a producer who lines up his guests and that he doesn’t know anything about the person until it is time to tape the show. Norm’s Psychic World airs several times a week, which has made Moody a local celebrity of sorts.

“I can go grocery shopping and someone comes up and says, ‘I see you on TV,’ and I say, ‘Thank you very much’ and they will ask me what I see and I’ll do a quick reading,” Moody said.

Because of MCAM’s Web site, which offers downloading of shows, Moody’s fan base may be larger than that of most local cable hosts.

“I do have a lot of people from all over the world … they find me on the Internet. It took me a lot of years to get exposure like this, and I am humbled — if any reader isn’t humble about this, they are not true — I have a lady calling me from Russia and three lawyers out of New York that call me,” Moody said.

The purpose of MCAM is to facilitate access and training for any Manchester resident to create television programs. It is also a primary outlet for the expression of ideas, opinions and information in a non-commercial, non-discriminatory and uncensored manner. The rules on programming content are looser on public access than they are on broadcast stations.

“Thursday is political night and that is the night people tend to like to watch. Some [programming] is controversial, a few producers have some opinions which can be a bit caustic at times,” said Lauren Horton, operations director at MCAM. “We are here to provide a service; we make the studio available to people with positive or negative views.”

What goes on air is the responsibility of the producer, not MCAM. Unless the actual content is against the law, almost anything goes. According to the MCAM Web site, “In the opinion of a producer, if any material in their program is deemed to be appropriate for adult audiences only, producers are expected to inform MCAM staff about programming that may be problematic to viewers in the Cablecast Request Form, and to exercise good judgment. Controversial or adult programming with excessively violent material, offensive language, excessive nudity, graphic depiction of medical procedures or sexually explicit material will be scheduled for cablecast between 11 PM and 6 AM.”

On MCAM, the definition of “violence” may be a matter of one’s own taste. One of the station’s more popular shows is Wicked Amateur Wrestling.

“It originated as a backyard wrestling program where guys wrestled on mattresses in their backyard. They would try to replicate what happens on WWE,” said Joe Lahr, Channel 23 station manager. “They had bad guys and good guys at the gym and they choose who is going to be on and they create this drama and it happens every week and they spill a lot of their own blood. It is a well-watched program, it gets number one…. The producers encourage kids [ages] 18 to 20 and they just beat the heck out of each other…. It’s wrestling big time.”

Chowder for everyone

There’s more to access than just one television outlet.

When an access program is requested in other communities, it will be sent to the community access provider to be scheduled. The key to being seen on more than one community station is the ability to convince other access managers to air your show. In New Hampshire, the one person who has been able to do that the best is political talk show host Arnie Arneson, with her show Political Chowder. The show is the brainchild of Arneson and Dottie Grover, cable director at Londonderry Access Community Television. Each week the show is taped at the Londonderry access studio. It is then sent to 28 other cable access stations. The show also runs every Sunday morning on WZMY television, a broadcast station in Derry (known as MyTV). While WZMY charges Arneson to air the show (WZMY claims it reaches more than two million households in Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire), the 28 access stations (which cover more than 80 communities in New Hampshire) do not. Dottie Grover said that while access programs are not allowed to make money, this show could.

“You are not supposed to come in here for a money-making venture,” said Dottie Grover. “If it [Political Chowder] did become a money-making venture the policy states you will reimburse us for the use of the equipment and everything. It is more likely right now with this Political Chowder show than anything else because it’s so incredibly popular,” Grover said.

If a broadcast station picks up Arneson’s show, then Londonderry Access will be reimbursed for the costs associated with the show’s production, which Grover estimates to be approximately $200 an hour per episode.

Concord’s CCTV

Since 1992, Rose Marie Lanier has been rapping with guests on her access show, Rapping with Rose Marie, on Concord Community Television.

Lanier’s show is one of the longest-running public access shows in Concord. She began the show to highlight peace and justice issues and has expanded it through the years to cover other topics including politics. Lanier is among a handful of television hosts in Concord who have been on public access for years. Another is Dick Patten, host of Around Town, a show that highlights community events. Julienne Turner, executive director of CCTV, said most community television is a mirror of the community in which it is produced.

“Concord community television is going to look different from Boston or New York television,” Turner said. “We have a lot of talk shows by community members, art shows, and it’s a reflection of what we have in the community, it’s a very artistic community.”

“We have The Book Swap CafĂ©, done by local resident Anita Hickey, she brings on authors from the New England area and interviews them about books and writing,” Turner said. “She has a following, a lot of publishing houses out of Boston and New York are sending her things.”

One of the newer and unusual shows on CCTV is Night Sky, hosted by David McDonald from the Christa McAuliffe Planetarium.

“He puts up the night sky in the background, a green screen, and will speak in a weatherman format about what is happening,” Turner said.

In Concord, all PEG programming is out of the CCTV studio at Concord High School. Funding is provided by the city from its cable TV franchise revenues. Like others in the state, Concord receives five percent from Comcast cable subscribers and CCTV receives 37 percent of total paid to the city. The station supplements its income through grants, an annual fund drive, special events and business underwriting. Most of the shows that air on the education channel are taped school events, games of the week, reading corners, school board meetings and similar type programming. The government channel consists of city council meetings, planning board meetings, public hearings and other municipal events. While most access managers will say they have plenty of programming to fill their education and government channels, the public access component of the PEG system is always in need of fresh faces and new programming ideas.

From Senior Speak (a show about seniors and issues relating to getting older) to Sports Junkies (three guys in team sports tees who sometimes love the Patriots), Turner says there isn’t anything she’d considered wacky on CCTV. However, she has seen some crazy television in Oregon where she worked before coming to CCTV.

“One of the shows was called The Haircut Show. It was a guy giving a man or a woman a haircut; there was no explanation of what they were doing. I loved that show, it was so fun to watch, and every once in a while the guy [haircutter] would say something like, ‘I like this song’ or ‘How’s it going?’ and they would just all be sitting there in a barber shop,” Turner said.

Shows like The Haircut Show are not out of the question for Concord. Turner said she’d love to hear from people in the community with some unique programming ideas.

“Our goal is to have more people and more programs on the channel and [fewer] repeats,” Turner said. “I’d like to have more people using the equipment and making different types of shows and see more people out in the community.”

Recently Turner hired two new assistants. She says that with fresh eyes she hopes to see more shows on the road at different venues in the community.

TV for the people

Advocates for public access television, like Dottie Grover, say more must be done to let the public know they have a tool to use when it comes to being heard.

“It’s first amendment rights of free speech. That’s as close as you are going to get to free speech,” Grover said. “We don’t censor, we don’t preview it, so if someone establishes [to us] that they are a community member, they can come in, use the equipment, or give us their tape and sign off on a version of compliance,” Grover said.

By signing off, producers take full responsibility for the content of their programming. In Londonderry, Grover doesn’t even preview a show before she puts it on the air.

“If someone calls and says, ‘I can’t believe you did this’ I now have the right to pull it and look at it, and I think that has happened five times in 20 years,” said Grover. “I will call back the person and say, ‘I can understand you might be offended, but the bottom line is that person [the producer] hasn’t broken any laws,” Grover said. “What I can do is teach you to create counter-programming so that your values and your beliefs can get out there as well. In the five times that has happened I think two out of three have taken me up on it. I believe in free speech … you either believe in it or you don’t. Once you put the ‘but’ in there you are already imposing your values on someone else.”

– By Lisa Brown

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