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.

Take the GodFather of Skating, 53-year-old David Miles. When he started producing Skatin' Place in the 1990s, he was intimidated by the equipment, but gradually picked up skills from studio staff and now films and edits his shows entirely at home. He fears that will no longer be possible under BAVC's plan. "I think the focus should be the average Joe who doesn't have access to electronic media," he said. "Now it seems like it's so hard to do, then why bother?"

There is a precedent. BAVC hopes to base its system on what is becoming the national model of how to run public access on a tiny budget: Denver Open Media. While Ikeda seems to see it as a model built on skimping, the executive director of that station says BAVC is overdramatizing its budget woes; if BAVC is creative with the capital money, it will have a lot more money at its disposal than Denver ever has had.

In 2005, Denver's city council eliminated the public-access station's operating budget, but asked if anyone wanted to step forward to run it anyway. A small media nonprofit called Deproduction, run by a young idealist named Tony Shawcross, took on the task of providing public access with only capital funds. The solution was that the community would essentially have to run itself — the Wikipedia of public-access television. Four years later, Shawcross has been lauded in the Denver press as saving public television, and the city's system is being piloted by public-access channels in seven cities, including Davis, California. BAVC hopes to install the Denver Open Media system by next spring.

S.F.’s GodFather of Skating, David Miles Jr., says he’ll stop producing Skatin’ Place after the new management takes over.
Frank Gaglione
S.F.’s GodFather of Skating, David Miles Jr., says he’ll stop producing Skatin’ Place after the new management takes over.

To generate some operating dollars, Denver's station has to charge users a bit more for membership than a better-supported channel like Access SF did ($75-$250 as opposed to $36), and studio rental (up to $15 an hour, compared to San Francisco's zero). The producers must be more self-sufficient in the studios, since there's no one to help them. (Deproductions hired only one extra staffer.) Yet Shawcross says Denver Open Media has been able to continue to serve low-income residents by providing private grant-funded scholarships for students. In fact, he says the number of producers in the first four years has skyrocketed from just 100 to 220.

Like BAVC's plan, producers in Denver schedule initial airings of shows on one channel. The Internet then plays a role in determining programming. Viewers can vote online for their favorite shows; those getting the most votes get airtime. (To make the voting system equitable across the digital divide, viewers can also vote via cellphones.)

Shawcross says the voting system has generated more community interest in the channel, since viewers feel more ownership over it. Online comments and phone texts also scroll across the bottom of the TV screen during live shows.

One benefit of a Web-based system is that producers can track the online viewing figures of their shows. Under the current system, Comcast won't share ratings data with Access SF, leaving it anyone's guess if the number of people watching is one or 1,001.

A perusal of Denver's Web site, still in the beta phase, shows the new format is still catching on. The most voted-on show has only 201 votes, a video on the concept of Creative Commons licensing that Denver Open Media itself found online. Other "popular" content includes many of the usual public-access channel suspects everywhere: gospel hours, music video compilations, and wonky self-help programs.

The fact that programming in Denver hasn't radically changed in the digital era should ease the fears of veteran producers in San Francisco worried about life under BAVC. But then again, sometimes it seems that nothing could ever mollify the likes of Julian Lagos and the GodFather of Skating.

The snacks and refreshments laid out for the first meet and greet between BAVC and the producers portended a civil affair. The producers had quickly filled the 60 reservations for a Q&A on BAVC's turf and spilled onto a waiting list. Making their way into a meeting room, they were greeted by the nonprofit's staffers doling out preprinted name tags. ("Oh, you're Zane?" one staffer asked as Blaney, sitting in a back row, identified himself to get his sticker. "You're the Zane Blaney?")

Most of the regulars showed, with notable exceptions for the two producers who had called for City Hall hearings at a meeting the week earlier. (Zeltzer had a conflict, and Lagos peeked in once from the hallway and was gone.) With no fewer than three producers videotaping them, Ikeda and Gilomen stood at the front of a meeting room and attempted to get off on the right foot.

"We're really excited to work with all of you," Gilomen said, outlining from a slide presentation indicating that a "smooth transition for the producers" was one of the main objectives during the first months of BAVC's reign. She and Ikeda went over the essentials: They would "certainly try" to keep the checkout equipment going, and the one-person studio on Market Street would be open until they moved it in-house. Without committing to too many details, they assured the producers that one channel would still be first come, first served, and not all shows would have to be voted onto the air in a popularity contest. Still, her reassurances didn't satisfy everyone. Half way through, one of the producers flashed a suspicious glare: "It seems you're trying to get rid of the people in this room."

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