Twenty San Franciscans who moonlight as producers on public-access TV strode into the Market Street studios on a recent Wednesday night, ready for a fight. It's a crowd that has become good at dissent. There was David Miles Jr., San Francisco's GodFather of Skating and host of the show Skatin' Place, who was strategically not re-elected to the board of the nonprofit that runs the local public-access channel, Access SF, after he called other board members "the Taliban." Steve Zeltzer, the salty 26-year producer of Labor on the Job, who has picketed for reform outside the station and regularly calls for the resignation of its director, walked past his nemesis in management, neither acknowledging the other. Ace Washington of Ace in Your Face strutted in, wearing a sparkly Obama hoodie and with his ever-present Handicam strapped on and ready to tape. He has twice been banned from the station for, among other things, allegedly calling the staff "faggots" and stealing a binder. (Washington says the station's leadership was just using those incidents as an excuse to get rid of opposition.)
Yet, for once, the target wasn't the leadership of Access SF for the last decade, as is normally the case when enough producers of certain seniority are in a room. The focus of their discontent had now shifted to the Bay Area Video Coalition (BAVC), a 30-year nonprofit media and art center negotiating with the city to run the two public-access channels (29 and 76 on Comcast).
Why the change? To condense what could be a miniseries into a sound bite, California has joined some 20 states in largely letting cable companies off the hook for funding public-access TV. Dozens of cities have lost their stations altogether, and in San Francisco, the operating budget has been hacked to a fifth of its former level.
BAVC (pronounced "bay-vak") claims it can run public-access TV on a shoestring budget by giving the channels a 21st-century facelift. Imagine a tricked-out, San Francisco–specific YouTube, in which anyone can post videos on a Web site, and online viewers can vote for their favorite programs to air on TV. But there will be sacrifices. The large studio and editing suites with multiple employees on hand for troubleshooting will probably be gone.
Cue producer complaints. "It sounds like they're taking public access and turning it into private access," one grumbled at the meeting. Julian Lagos of Deep Politics Television, who recently professed he didn't believe in global warming on his show, said he'd look into filing a lawsuit against the city for not providing true public access under its plan. He and Steve Zeltzer made a motion to call for hearings at City Hall about BAVC's proposal.
Idell Wilson, the producer of Ghetto TV, shook her signature orange, purple, and pink braids that burst from the top of her head like a psychedelic pom-pom. "I'm getting motion sickness from all these motions," she said. "We haven't even talked to [BAVC] yet. How we gonna jump on a bull we don't even know about?"
By the meeting's end an hour and 45 minutes later, one contingent of producers voted for hearings about BAVC's proposal, and another voted to invite BAVC to respond to their demands. Scribbled in bullet points on a giant white pad, the list essentially sought everything the producers already had under the current management.
While BAVC is all too aware of what it's gotten into with its paltry operating budget, it's just starting to become acquainted with what will likely become its biggest challenge: getting the folks who actually make the shows on its side.
It's not easy to please a group of folks who are used to literally running the show. David Miles likens it to herding cats. Access SF certainly has its fair share of personalities. Dina Boyer, a transgender woman, invites other transfolks to a gab session on Tranny Talk TV. On My Naked Truth, Gypsy Taub joins other people sitting in the buff who discuss everything except usually the fact that they're nude. On Brainiac, a dinosaur with a human skull for a face raises the Christ child and the National Guard combats a zombie king who has taken over the station (and has a name suspiciously close to that of the real-life executive director). Other shows take themselves more seriously: Newsroom was nominated for a Northern California Emmy, while the monthly LGBT news show Outlook Video has stacked up regional and national awards over the last decade.
Public access came to San Francisco in the mid-'70s, when cable giant Viacom arrived. The city required the company to provide a facility and channel space — and eventually funding — for public access, educational, and government programming in exchange for allowing it to install its cables on telephone poles and underground.
The producers who demonize their station's current management tend to romanticize the days when public access was run by Viacom out of a shabby studio on Harrison Street. They reminisce about a time where a corps of producers volunteered on each other's shows and a guy known as Dangerous George recruited a new generation. "We could do anything we wanted," San Francisco public-access icon Dee Dee Russell says. Russell often hosted her sex-focused variety show, Dee Dee TV, in the nude, usually with animation covering her breasts. The station's resident sex kitten, Rebecca Danis, donned a low-cut bee outfit in Queen Bee TV. If that wasn't enough to get viewers' attention, she then performed plays using paper-bag puppets and her cats as characters. Phil the Security Guy experimented with early reality TV, training the camera on himself as he worked his guard job. Show times were granted by seniority; some producers had monopolized their prime-time slots for as long as a decade.
In 1999, the city transferred management of public-access stations from the cable company to the San Francisco Community Television Corporation, a 10-year-old nonprofit that had been running the government television station. At first, Access SF producers were supportive of the nonprofit, headed by executive director Zane Blaney. But when the station's board voted to implement a lottery system for what it argued would be a more equitable time-slot assignment process, it drew a line in the sand.