Bill Wade, Post-Gazette
On the set of the North Side studios of PCTV, Kurt Haverstock, production manager, right, moves a ladder after adjusting a light for the "Pondering With Pamela" music show. Dr. James T. Johnson Jr., left, gives instructions to his Afro American Music Institute student Langston Johnson, with the sax, as host Pamela Johnson smiles approval. Also in the shot: singer Payton Olivis, center, and musicians, from left, Andy Bianco, Jeff Grubbs, and James T. Johnson III on drums.
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For many people, public access TV is still symbolized by "Wayne's World," a "Saturday Night Live" sketch that portrayed two slackers doing a so-bad-it's-good program from a basement rec room.
But today, the Waynes of the world have a whole new stage on the Web. Homemade videos are viewed by millions each day, giving anyone with a video camera and a fast Internet connection their own "show."
So do we still need public access TV?
Some cable operators -- and others who view the programming as a waste of space on the dial -- argue that it's time to drop public access channels, because there are now so many other forums for people who want to create their own media.
Others say public access is a vital tool of democracy and should be preserved, even if it needs to be tweaked a little.
Last year, legislation in Congress proposed waiving the requirement that cable companies offer public-access channels. The bill didn't make it to a vote, but public access advocates say they can't afford to relax.
"Access always can be jeopardized," said Thomas Poole, executive director of PCTV, Pittsburgh's public access channel.
Public access supporters argue that Web video isn't really as democratic as it appears. Sure, anyone can do it -- anyone with enough money for a video camera, high-speed Internet access and the right software. The truly democratic media is public access, they say, where the entire community can use camera and studio facilities for free.
Public access is also local, aimed at a specific community, while most Web video is not.
Many in the trenches feel that taking public access away would be an assault on free speech. "The cable companies have the right to raise their rates whenever they want to. Meanwhile they're trying to cut the community's voice," says PCTV community producer Kay Bey, who uses the on-air name of DaButtonPusha and produces several hip-hop music showcases here.
"They're willing to forgo the voices of the people they say they're here to serve. Every type of people uses community access -- young, elders, rich people, poor people."
Bill Wade, Post-Gazette
B.E. Barnes prepares to edit a new sports show he is producing with Smokin' Jim Frazier.
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"Corporate greed is getting in the way of democracy," says PCTV producer Brian T. "It will be a major disservice to communities and individuals everywhere if community-access TV is taken away. Every person who pays for cable TV should be provided with the resources to produce their own local television. Media has been and continues to be one of the most powerful tools to express and communicate individual ideas and should not be compromised."
He believes old and new forms of citizen media can work together. "Public access TV and sites like YouTube and MySpace complement each other because they are based on the same principle of media created by the people for the people, without interference by big corporations or some other second and third parties."
But some backers of public access think it needs significant changes.
One of them is Dan Gillmor, director of the Center for Citizen Media and author of "We the Media: Grassroots Journalism by the People, for the People."
"Public access, by almost any standard, has been a valuable addition to the local media scene," he wrote on the Center for Citizen Media Web site. "Valuable, but outdated: It's time to phase out public access -- but in a way that brings us even better publicly-created news and entertainment."
He advocates a 5-to-10-year transition period, during which public access facilities would provide updated training in production techniques, based on a Web model rather than a broadcast model.
After that, public access broadcasting would largely switch from cable systems to the Web.
That, Gillmor says, would benefit everyone -- viewers, community producers and the cable companies.
Under his plan, the public would get "a vast array of new programming of all kinds, from a cadre of newly trained citizen media creators. Maybe cable systems will want to put some of it on their channels or maybe not. But the Web makes it unimportant whether they do or not."
But some say that Gillmor's proposal discounts the way that public access serves those who don't have high-speed computer connections available to them.
African-Americans contribute a significant proportion of the programming on PCTV,
"You don't have many minority-owned TV stations," said Bey, who is African-American. Community access "gives us a way to get that footage out there. Whether you like the programming or not, at least we have a medium to use."
Still, PCTV is looking to the future in some of the ways Gillmor suggests.
The station's programs now stream online on the PCTV Web site. It also offers a digital editing workshop in addition to basic production training.
The channel hopes to add video-on-demand and chat-room features, so viewers can interact more fully with what they're watching.
"We don't want to be dinosaurs," says PCTV's Poole. "But it's important we don't get distracted or our focus so fragmented from our mission as a community television station."
PCTV's franchise agreement here expires in two years. "It's an endangered species if people don't put any value to it, if people marginalize it. It's about community support. For it to exist people need to support it and validate it," Poole says. "Politicians aren't going to request things unless there's a demand from the citizens.
"Even if there are some things on the air you don't agree with, the stage itself is what you're protecting. You can always go on yourself and say what you want to say."
That's what really sets public access apart from commercial TV, Poole says. "You can't go down to KDKA and say, 'I want to take out a camera and produce a show.' "
Adrian McCoy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org