Adjust Your Television

The YouTube-ification of public-access TV in S.F. is about to begin – and the old cast of kooky cable programmers doesn’t like it one bit.

In San Francisco, Comcast no longer has to cough up $500,000 a year for public-access operations. To stem the loss, the Board of Supervisors voted to increase the charges to cable subscribers from 52 cents on the average monthly bill to a little more than $1, starting next year. That will bring in more than $1 million a year, to be doled out to the education channel, the government TV channel, and public access.

But there's a twist. San Francisco has taken the cable company's view that the surcharge could be applied only toward capital costs. (Think computers, hardware, cameras, and rent.) Only $170,000 from Comcast will be available for operations. (Think salaries and benefits; Blaney's salary last year alone was $94,000.) In fact, since the state law that gutted public access was passed in 2006, the station's board approved raises of approximately $20,000 and $10,000 for Blaney and the assistant director, respectively. Blaney says the word in public-access circles had been that the state law would "do no harm" to funding, and he didn't find out otherwise until this year. For that reason, he says he hadn't pushed hard enough to find other revenue sources. Not exactly an institution that was building an ark to weather the fiscal storm.

At City Hall meetings this year, a few of the old producers angry with Blaney presented the Board of Supervisors with a mixed message: Save public access for the little guy, but get rid of the guy in charge. Now they're realizing the deal they had under Blaney maybe wasn't that bad after all.


Producer David Miles Jr. lost his spot on the station’s board after calling its members the “Taliban.”
Frank Gaglione
Producer David Miles Jr. lost his spot on the station’s board after calling its members the “Taliban.”
Love him or hate him: Departing Access SF executive director Zane Blaney.
Frank Gaglione
Love him or hate him: Departing Access SF executive director Zane Blaney.

BAVC's Mission District headquarters stretches through a former Best Foods mayonnaise factory converted into a sleek suite of Mac computer labs and editing rooms. Hip young employees teach media workshops and put the final touches on such programming as the PBS series Independent Lens or the widely released documentary Girls Rock! Along with offering postproduction work to filmmakers around the country, the 30-year-old nonprofit with a $5 million annual budget already offers a kind of public access in free programs in media production to 1,000 inner-city youth a week, supporting it all by grants, commissions, and pricey workshops for professionals and the public.

With the tiny operating budget, BAVC directors hope to replace the work formerly done by human employees at Access SF with the help of a Web site.

"You're talking about going from almost a million dollars a year to $170,000," says executive director Ken Ikeda, a urbane man with hipster eyewear who has been answering his share of anxious phone calls from existing producers. "It has to be a different model. That's what we're trying to communicate."

The basic idea is this: Any resident, community group, or nonprofit will post their finished shows onto a Web site tentatively named San Francisco Commons, and schedule them to air once, on one channel. Viewers can stream the videos online any time, comment on them, or recommend them to other users. (Access SF currently has no archive system.) The second channel could be the moneymaker: Nonprofits could pay for BAVC memberships to curate a block of programming about a certain subject, such as the environment, the arts, or politics. The shows themselves could be underwritten ("This segment was brought to you by ..."). Any scheduling holes could be filled by videos that have received the most online votes.

The voting system indicates a shift in traditional public-access programming where any and all shows must be allowed to air at least once, no matter what the public thinks. While it's still uncertain how much programming would be determined by voting, the system would allow the public a bigger say in what they want to watch.

BAVC has committed to checking out the existing equipment and to keeping open the one-man "flash" studio at the Market Street facility — so named for the ability of one producer to host, film, and edit a show in one stop — until the end of the year. (The larger production studio has been closed since late May, when much of the funding expired.) The plans are shaky after the new year, when the current lease is up. BAVC has indicated it will try to move the flash studio into its headquarters, but would also like to pair with nonprofits to check out equipment or use small studio spaces to offer more access points around the city.

Some worry the new system is limiting access to the tech-savvy. Jen Gilomen, the BAVC staffer in charge of public access, says the nonprofit won't be able to provide "full hand-holding service" at a large walk-in studio of the kind many of the producers are accustomed to. It seems that in the near future, people must be able to produce and edit Web-ready videos they must then upload online on their personal computers or at BAVC.

That may not seem like a big deal to many in this wired city, and indeed, the station reports that the use of editing equipment and the main studio has been declining since 2002, even while the demand for checking out cameras and the one-person "flash" studio has been on the rise. But your average public-access producer isn't a SOMA techie. Many of the station's producers skew toward the graying set, for whom technology wasn't a birthright.

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