The Electronic Soapbox:
A Brief History of Public Access Television and its Social Effects
By Michael Phelan O’Toole
Beyond the defined complexities in mass media studies and its various effects on the human condition, exists a bass-line of simplicity, essential to the survival and advancement of us as a collective people; the individual desire to be heard. Although this concept can be outlined and dissected on a scholarly level to an almost infinite degree, it comes from a very basic place, even in such an advanced age. Upon the general evolution of our mainstream mass media technologies, many are content with the direction our media has taken, confident in the idea that they as the audience are somehow dictating what corporations choose to present to them, while being excluded from the true process. Throughout mass media’s history, the common individual has never been guaranteed access to these influential tools, often overlooked in favor of the elite. Previously, the average person’s only alternative forum for a degree of mass communication was that of a literal soapbox on a busy street corner (Bill Olson, The History of Public Access Television, “Freedom of Speech.”) However, in the age of cable television, those with a will to be heard on a large scale, now have a way, in the form of community television, or public access.
Public access television provides training and airtime to those in the community who wish to create programming able to be seen throughout their particular residential area. Although the origin of “access” as we know it today was influenced by legal and philosophical roots in the legislation which created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, this being the 1967 Public Broadcasting Act, the two would evolve in polarizing directions. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting was created in an effort to fund the Public Broadcasting Service, which aimed to produce television programming that could serve the local community, as well as thwart the major networks by expressing their ability to create controversial and innovative material (Laura R. Linder 1). However, due to its growing appeal and government funding, the more than 100 public broadcasting member stations were forced into creating programming geared more toward a broad audience, and in 1970 they became a unified network. Within two years of that, PBS’s affiliates grew to 233. Although these advancements gave the PBS programs the potential to reach a much bigger audience, with that came the watering down of their programs (Linder 2). The popularity of the concept of Public Broadcasting had essentially killed itself, so to speak.
Although public access TV carries with it an evolution, it is difficult to pin down events which so sequentially lead to a systematic development of what it is today. However one particular event which aimed toward the first focused attempt at what would become community television involved the Canadian National Film Board. In 1966, a group called Challenge for Change, whose goal was to produce documentaries that would elicit social change by relating to the universal human condition of subjects in addition to viewers. This was based around making their films with people, not “about” them (Linder 3). A particular project that was one of the early successes of the Challenge for Change group, and later played a role in the development of community television, was a documentary about Fogo Island. Fogo Island is a community located off Canada’s northeast shore, and due to the area’s main industry of fishing in decline and the majority of residents living on welfare, the government was taking into consideration moving all five thousand residents off the island. Seeing that the residents did not want to leave their home, the Challenge for Change team, including George C. Stoney, a man who would later be called “The father of public access,” saw this as a great opportunity to use their film technology as a catalyst for social change (Linder 3). The team asked the islanders to talk about whom they were, what they did, and their love for the island. In addition, they also went so far as to teach the islanders how to operate the film equipment used to record the interviews. The film crew later realized that the islanders as a community were more responsive to watching their pieces separately, rather than edited to together in a traditional documentary style. Realizing the beauty in this technique, Challenge for Change scheduled group showings of the short films, and saw it foster dialogue in the island community, bringing them closer together, as well as educating them on the uses of film technology. After utilizing the films to illustrate the residents various feelings towards the possible move, the government dropped its original plans, seeing how passionate the people were, via the collective of short films. (Linder 4)
With the simultaneous advancement of home video technology, and development of cable TV, the Challenge for Change group saw a new outlet for their work coming to light. Coupled with the positive success of the Fogo Island films, and the intrigue in the new medium called cable, Canada saw a demand in support for a publicly accessible channel. A prototype for community TV came to fruition with the collaboration between a local civic organization in Thunder Bay, Ontario making plans to operate a channel, relying on Challenge for Change to supply the station’s equipment and train its initial volunteer members. Although the Thunder Bay program survived only a year, it fueled an interest in the potential of public access television to educate and inform without a media bias. While Challenge for Change continued in its efforts to assist in an upstart of community programming, in 1971, the Canadian Radio and Television Commission required that public access be a comprehensive segment of Canadian cable television. (Linder 4)
Soon after, George Stoney moved to New York, and teamed up with Red Burns, a Canadian documentary filmmaker, to found the Alternative Media Center at NYU. The Alternative Media Center served as the central location for the spread of public access TV in the United States, with a goal to “ensure that new communication technology served the public interest” through educating people on it, and producing its own unique content. George Stoney had these words to say in a 1984 interview with Afterimage magazine; “We wanted to see if people would respond to a different kind of television, so instead of trying to make our stuff look like conventional programming, we just had video crews go and say “Hey man, what’s happening?” It was all very laid back… We put the unedited tapes directly on cable as well as having community playbacks.” (Linder 5) This being the early 1970s, with so few people even having cable let alone watching or participating in public access production, Stoney and Burns would setup TVs in public places, such as store fronts, and even in the back of Stoney’s station wagon, to watch as people reacted to the unconventional style of television. Another project the Alternative Media Center embarked on, was bringing up a specific local event chronicled in the newspaper, interviewing several people on the street about it, and then watching the dynamic play out between these people. This experiment gave a good example of the power of public access television, to not only document something not large enough to be covered by mainstream media outlets, but also to personalize the medium enough to illustrate the relationships and opinions unique to that neighborhood of people. From here, things only got bigger (Linder 5).
A great victory was won for supporters of public access television, upon the FCC issuing of its Third Report and Order, which required every cable system in the top one hundred U.S. television markets to provide an access channel, for public and educational use. The cable companies were also ordered to provide the facilities and technology for people to produce their own programs (Gillespie 91).
Determined to spread the philosophy and knowledge of public access further, Stoney and Burns as the Alternative Media Center, helped organize public access efforts in other locations in the united states, implementing an internship program to promote education and teaching of the technology needed to produce programming, and the philosophies needed to continue the medium growth as an avenue for social change. The Center also helped to found the National Federation of Local Cable Programmers, which gave those advocating for the support of public access an official mass voice. Through this voice the NFLCP was able to convince the cable companies to fund the major undertakings required to bring Stoney and Burns’ vision to light. This included cable companies finding and organizing the physical location and presence of the access station, running it for at least a period of three months, and more importantly locating and educating local citizens on the equipment, in order for them to become the official staff at the end of this upstart period. The growth of potential for public access TV blossomed with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. In addition, local cable companies would match that support, and made possible an internship program where future access center staff would travel from their residency, to the Alternative Media Center, to be educated on the founding principles of Stoney and Burns’ TV vision and trained on their video equipment. After these interns were trained and returned home to their communities to startup their access centers, they would return for a week in the middle of the year, to educate the next round of interns. Through this cycle, the Alternative Media Center was able to facilitate the ground-level advancement of access beyond Stoney and Burns’ invested efforts alone (Linder 6).
While the Alternative Media Center provided a great structure in securing the progression of public access, they were not the only group trying to help people produce programming. Once the method of delivery was secured, a dual problem still remained. One was to be able to develop and create worthwhile, innovative material that would open peoples’ eyes to the beauty of access, and the other, this still being the early days of cable TV itself, was to get people to watch at all. From here, this meant that those involved in access, had to commit to a sort of grassroots marketing campaign to get others interested, and setting up TVs with cable in public viewing places, for the large number of citizens without cable. One of the major organizers of this movement was a communications specialist and teacher, named Theodora Sklover. She founded Open Channel to help produce public access programming. Flourishing in her outreach and efforts for public funding, she managed to collect over two hundred film and TV producers, directors, camera people, and lighting and audio techs, who would volunteer to help the community produce shows, and educate volunteers. The public access movement was spreading, and gave way to counter-counter grassroots youth video producers, with names like Videofreex, People’s Communication Network, and May Day Collective, who believed that the communication tool of video and public access television gave them a voice and a vehicle for rising up against the authority of the major media. These groups were trying to unite the underground press with this new communications technologies. Michael Shamberg was one of the most known advocates of this type of movement, which came to be known as “guerrilla television.” Shamberg continued to promote access channels and the possibilities of social change that they provided (Linder 7, Olson, “Guerrilla Television.”)
Public access television continues to thrive in the utilization of new technologies and equipment, as well as facilitate that same opportunity for innovative, independent and socially aware content. Despite various bills in congress trying to shut it down, and the advancement of video technology on the internet, community television continues to survive, fueled by volunteers and the same “do-it-yourself” ethic that motivated George C. Stoney to get the ball rolling, and earn him the title “the father of public access television.” Although his contributions are unparallel in laying the foundation for what access is today, Theodora Sklover’s efforts in ground-level promotion, and amazing advancements in organizing a structure for education by way of recruiting film and TV professionals to volunteer cannot be ignored. Her main goal was to technologically empower those in the community, to be able to speak out to a mass audience and have an impact. “Our biggest problem lies in informing the public that they can go on television… People are used to thinking that TV is something someone else does, not something they do.” – Theodora Sklover (Linder 7).
“THE HISTORY OF PUBLIC ACCESS TELEVISION.” Bill Olson 4/26/06 http://www.geocities.com/iconostar/history-public-access-TV.html
Linder, Laura R. Public Access Television: America’s Electronic Soapbox. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1999
Gillespie, Gilbert. Public Access Cable Television in the United States and Canada. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1975.
The Electronic Soapbox: A Brief History of Public Access Television
Michael Phelan O’Toole
Introduction to Mass Media
Professor Jayson Baker
Massbay Spring 2006