By Erin Sherbert
By Rachel Swan
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By Howard Cole
By Erin Sherbert
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By Leif Haven
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.
Blaney says there was a waiting list of some 150 producers who couldn't get shows when the SFCTC took over the station. Longtime producers argued they should be given priority, and that switching time slots every six months made it impossible to keep a loyal audience.
Some producers blamed the move for driving away some of their ranks even as the city negotiated higher subsidies from Comcast — which now operates the majority of cable service in San Francisco — that totaled more than $840,000 last year. Locally produced shows fell from 4,800 hours in 2002-2003 to 2,274 hours in 2006-2007, and critics say the station has lost its edge and a lot of its audience.
The lottery wasn't the only issue producers had with Blaney. They charge that he created a top-heavy, stagnant organization resistant to any new idea that didn't originate with him. Fundraising attempts were few and poorly executed, including a telethon that failed to raise even $1,000.
Additionally, some producers didn't like the new rules. Tapes had to be turned in five days before showtime, or programs wouldn't air. The board punished a handful of producers with suspensions for code-of-conduct violations. Adult-content shows were pushed back to after 11 p.m. when the board decided it had a responsibility to prevent such shows airing during hours when kids were likely to be watching. That included Dee Dee TV and a guy who had a show called D World ("D" for "dope"), on which a woman performed an obscene act with a beer bottle. While Blaney says the nonprofit never watches a show before it airs, those who tried to slip in nudity during the day — including when the producer of Brainiac included a clip of beastly breasts from the movie Frankenhooker — were told afterward to stop it or move to a later time slot. As Russell says of the station managers who restricted the time slots for racier content, "A bunch of gay Christians started running this station."
The producers divided into three camps: those who support Blaney, others who say they aren't "Zane haters," and those who have never forgiven him. Miles has his wife drop off his Skatin' Place tapes at the station since getting "kicked off" the board, while the haters still spit vitriol every chance they get. "When I look at his face, I get a puke!" producer George Geevargis says in his thick Persian accent, pointing at Blaney through the window after the recent meeting and then gesturing from his mouth.
Blaney has perfected the art of holding a poker face while being attacked. A former radio broadcaster, he speaks with an authoritative-sounding voice that critics interpret as patronizing. He defends his decisions, saying a small number of producers who were mad about the lottery system seeded discontent among a handful of others, who then became belligerent with the station staff. (His tales of his time at the station include many references to producers going "berserk," "over the top," and "off the deep end.") He says four directors left the board because they couldn't take the drama: "It did a lot of damage to a lot of people, and there wasn't even any real way to respond to it," he said.
Packing up his office, Blaney is planning a memoir about what he calls the failure of San Francisco to protect the public-access channels over the last 30 years and his experience with the station over the last 10. Its working title is Access to Hell. He says he supports BAVC's plan, but foresees the same people who fought him will fight the new management. In fact, they already are. "It will be no different for BAVC," he said. "What do you have to do to make people happy?"
Although dissident producers couldn't get rid of Blaney and the board in years of complaining, the telecommunications industry sank the station's leadership with one efficient law. In the late '90s, when competitors started installing broadband-fiber connections for Internet, TV, and phones in homes, traditional phone companies such as AT&T saw their market diminishing. They wanted to get into broadband, yet didn't want the headache of negotiating cable franchise agreements with every city. So they began hitting up legislatures around the country, persuading 20 states since 2004 to let them to set up one-stop agreements at the state level. Such legislation loosened the obligation to fund public-access television: Since average viewers now have YouTube and their own blogs, why do they need their own TV specials?
In California, Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez wrote a bill for AT&T that was sold to legislators as a way to increase competition among cable companies, thus driving down prices for subscribers. After the law went into effect in 2007, the promised price breaks never happened. What did happen was that 70 cities lost their public-access studios this year — including Los Angeles, Richmond, and El Cerrito.
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.
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.
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.
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."
No meeting about public access in San Francisco would be complete without a mention of the time-slot lottery, and Miles was happy to bring it up: "How many like the lottery?" Nine out of the 60 raised their hands. Gilomen responded: "I don't even know what the lottery is." Good answer.
Ace Washington stood to address the crowd in his sparkly Obama hoodie, attempting to recruit members for his "transition team": "Regardless of what you hear here and don't know, you can know if you're part of the transition team, because yours truly is on top of this transition team, and is going to be responsible to get the information back to you, the public, and on top of them," he said, motioning at the BAVC reps. "Now you hear they're going to tour the studios, the transition team is going to try to be part of that — document it. You gotta use your cameras. That's your only tool; that's been my tool."
"All I'll say is I'm open to anybody's comments," Ikeda said. "It needs to be organized, and I encourage it."
"I'm not talkin' about comments. I'm talkin about act-u-a-lity," Washington replied, and sat down.
At some points, a few producers mulled the idea that things might actually improve under BAVC, which is expected to formally take over public-access operations in September after it finalizes a deal with the city. One producer looked around the room where all but a couple of attendees were under 40 and admitted that bringing in the youth with which BAVC works could be beneficial: BAVC "will bring in new ideas, what I've been asking for a long time." Dee Dee demanded that people snap out of their funk: "I don't understand this fear. It can't be worse. I want some optimism."
After the meeting, producers huddled in the hallway, finishing the snacks and exchanging their still-unquelled concerns about the station. After all the others had left, three icons of the public-access old guard, David Miles, Dee Dee, and Queen Bee (making a surprise appearance after seven years off the air, leaving her bumblebee getup at home, alas), reminisced about the old station. Miles said BAVC seemed like the same old "corporate" strategy as Access SF, and concluded that he was done with his show: "The public access we knew is gone."
Not that the GodFather of Skating really wanted to take over the channel when he answered the call for proposals to run the station on a reduced budget. Last month, after the city announced its intent to hand over public access to BAVC and not him, Miles wrote the city an e-mail. His reaction to losing? "My God, I am so relieved."