I am a lover of the avant-garde, the weird, the obscure, and the almost-impossible-to-find. I myself am rather weird. After all, writing essays is one of my favorite hobbies and I perform research in my spare time, trying my best to investigate various topics that are off the beaten path.
My current fascination is with obscurities from the heyday of Manhattan public access TV (roughly the mid-seventies through the mid-eighties). In spite of the overwhelming lack of available resources on the subject, I have spent the last week and a half conducting research on it. I am currently in the midst of writing two related pieces on specific programs that fall under the Manhattan Public Access Cable umbrella, and I thought I would write this overview and post it first so that I can reference it in future essays.
Now, for your learning pleasure:
Public access television can be loosely defined as a form of non-commercial mass media where the general public can create original content which is then “narrowcast” through cable TV specialty channels. Narrowcasting (not sure if it’s an actual word in the dictionary or just an industry term) refers to the distribution of information to a niche audience. In the case of public access, the niche audience would be a local community (which, in the context of this essay, is the NYC borough of Manhattan).
The rationale for public access television actually predates cable technology, and goes all the way back to the Communications Act of 1934. The Communications Act, although at the time referring to radio and wire service, posited that the airwaves belong to the people and that it is necessary in a democratic society to multiply public participation in political discussion by providing opportunities to do so outside of the mainstream media.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I actually didn’t have cable when I was a kid. My family had an old-school boxy analog TV, complete with an antenna on the top that sometimes needed to be wrapped in aluminum foil in order to get better reception. When I was really little, we hadn’t even gotten a color set yet. One of my most prominent childhood memories is of my father setting up our first ever color television: a bulky Sony Trinitron, which at the time represented some of the best in cathode-ray tube technology, with incomparable color and image quality. That I night I saw the Simpsons’ yellow flesh for the first time, and I remember finding it shocking and exciting.
Although I personally didn’t make the transition from analog to cable until 2005, the technology behind cable television dates back to the 1950s. Allow me to briefly describe the differences between the two technologies in a (hopefully comprehensible) nutshell: analog television functions via signals transmitted on a particular radio frequency, from the TV stations’ transmitting antenna over the air to the receiving antenna on the top of your TV set. Each station, and therefore each channel, corresponds to a particular frequency. Cable television is technologically different, primarily because it functions via radio frequency signals transmitted through cables (traditionally, coaxial cables and now fiber-optic cables) that are located underground. Get it? I hope so, because it sure took me a long time to figure out how to explain it.
Public access television has always been exclusively a cable phenomenon. While experiments in non-commercial local television date back to the late 1960s, the unofficial first year of public access was 1971, when cable television began its introduction to the American public. The following year, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) mandated that all new cable systems in the country’s 100 largest markets provide channels for government, educational purposes, and of course, community public access.
Manhattan was the first American metro area to be wired for cable and consequently it established the world’s first public access channels. Black-and-white signals had always been able to transmit over the air with no problems but with the onset of color TV, Manhattan’s towering skyscrapers badly interfered with reception. In order for color sets to sell, the only option was to lay cable underground, beneath the streets, to limit service disruptions.
In 1970, two companies, TelePrompTer and Sterling-Manhattan Cable agreed to pay the city $30,000 each in annual royalties in return for 20-year franchises. The two companies divided the island between them, with Sterling-Manhattan Cable taking 86th Street and below, and TelePrompTer taking everything above. Those earliest cable subscribers paid $5 a month to get all regular channels in color, plus the “flagship” channel 10, which offered about 12 hours of eclectic programming a day, including a show produced by New York magazine. In return for subscription fees and their contract with the city, the cable companies would provide studio space, training, equipment, and airtime for free, to anyone who wanted it, on a first-come, first-served basis. They also consented to reserve two channels for the direct participation of the public and commercial-free self-expression. These channels, channels C and D, both premiered in 1971.
Channels C and D birthed an entirely different breed of programming, one that often reflected the interests of groups and individuals on the fringes of society, excluded from mainstream television. Public access TV was also unique in that it was not subject to conventional network censorship, only to obscenity and libel laws. Cable companies were to allow the public to go uncensored except where it was necessary to protect themselves from liability.
In 1976, Channel J, the very first “leased access” channel was created. J was different from C and D; airtime slots were not free, but ran $50 apiece. However, producers were permitted to sell spots to advertisers, making Channel J the first commercial public access channel ever. From its inception through to its extinction in 1991, Channel J was plagued by controversy and threats of legal action due to its bizarre assortment of off-color adult programming. However, the controversies should not diminish the fact that Channel J provided a unique opportunity for talented performers to produce original content and subsidize their own creative endeavors. Whether or not anyone was watching is a different story.
It really breaks my heart that many (if not most) of the early public access shows are long-gone, with only print sources remaining to inform us of their existence. The most common reason for this considerable loss is simply the deterioration of the mediums on which these shows were recorded. Many of these programs were taped on early consumer-grade video, like the Portapak, which degrades fairly quickly and is exceedingly difficult to copy (something I actually know from personal experience). It’s unfortunate, because the Portapak allowed for a great deal of independent, innovative, on-the-go video production but due to its chemical instability, much what was produced is now lost. Plus, by 1980, live studio facilities would become a key facet of public access programming, and the technology would evolve accordingly.
Now, this post could certainly be longer, more comprehensive, and perhaps a bit less dry. But this essay is really just an overview, an introduction to things that I will be writing about in the very near future.
I hope that you continue reading.