Northeast Times

Public access TV tunes in some brotherly love

The pub­lic me­dia out­let fi­nally has ar­rived in Phil­adelphia! Phil­lyCAM, which tele­casts on Com­cast chan­nels 66 and 966 and Ve­r­i­zon’s 29 and 30, opened its stu­di­os and headquar­ters last week.

The thing about TV is that it’s an in­stant me­di­um, or so we be­lieve. That wasn’t the case for pub­lic ac­cess TV in Philly. That took a while — al­most three dec­ades.

But it’s here at last.

Phil­lyCAM, which broad­casts on Com­cast chan­nels 66 and 966 and Ve­r­i­zon’s 29 and 30, opened its stu­di­os and headquar­ters at 699 Ran­stead St. in Cen­ter City last week.

“You’re on TV!” Phil­lyCAM’s ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or Gretjen Claus­ing told a crowd of pub­lic ac­cess ad­voc­ates and law­makers as cam­er­as rolled at the new fa­cil­ity on Feb. 8.

Giv­ing the pub­lic free ac­cess to cable chan­nels was part of the ori­gin­al fran­chise agree­ments with the city’s first cable com­pan­ies, Claus­ing said in a Feb. 9 phone in­ter­view. The money to pay for equip­ment and broad­cast­ing was to come from the fran­chise fees cable com­pan­ies charged their sub­scribers. That cash money got col­lec­ted, but it went in­to the city’s treas­ury, she said.

Or­din­ary people mak­ing their own, un­censored pro­grams re­mained an idea and not a real­ity for more than 25 years, Claus­ing said.

Why?

“I don’t think there was one single reas­on,” Claus­ing said.

First, there was a gap in lead­er­ship on the is­sue. May­or Mi­chael Nut­ter, who spoke at the Feb. 8 Phil­lyCAM event, said Coun­cil­man at-large John An­der­son had been the biggest ad­voc­ate for the mid-1980s cable le­gis­la­tion.

But An­der­son died in of­fice and no one re­placed him on the is­sue, Claus­ing said.

Then, it be­came a budget­ary ques­tion and after that, she said, the is­sue was mis­un­der­stood by some elec­ted of­fi­cials who thought pub­lic ac­cess TV would be little more than an out­let for por­no­graphy and hate speech.

A few years ago, pub­lic ac­cess TV ad­voc­ates start­ing re­new­ing the push to get on the air. In 2007, she said, the Phil­adelphia Com­munity Ac­cess Co­ali­tion and city of­fi­cials were able to re­vise the cable fran­chise agree­ment with Com­cast. But ad­voc­ates also con­vinced city res­id­ents of the rel­ev­ance of pub­lic ac­cess.

“What began to turn the tide,” she said, “is when people began to see the con­sol­id­a­tion of the me­dia, that ac­cess to al­tern­at­ive points of view was shrink­ing.”

Then, fi­nally, a few years ago, pub­lic ac­cess TV be­came a real­ity.

“We went on the air in 2009,” she said, but there were no stu­di­os and “our broad­cast serv­er was in City Hall. … We were shar­ing rack space with the gov­ern­ment.”

The shows Phil­lyCAM broad­cast were pro­duced in­de­pend­ently and handed in by those who cre­ated and shot the pro­grams.

Un­solved Phil­adelphia, which fo­cuses on the city’s un­solved hom­icides, is one of those pro­grams, Claus­ing said.  Pro­duced by Grady Jones, who spoke briefly at the Feb. 8 event, it “gives an in­cred­ible meas­ure of clos­ing to murder vic­tim’s fam­il­ies,” Claus­ing said.

Free speech is the over­rid­ing idea be­hind pub­lic ac­cess TV, Claus­ing said. The shows Phil­lyCAM will air are not cen­sored, she said, so, the hate speech and por­no­graphy that politi­cians feared would not be cen­sored either.

“But if you look at the his­tory of pub­lic ac­cess, the num­ber of those in­cid­ents are small,” she said.

In Phil­adelphia, 70 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion still gets most news from TV, not new­er me­dia like the In­ter­net or smart phones. Provid­ing chan­nels on which res­id­ents can share neigh­bor­hood in­form­a­tion or have long con­ver­sa­tions about spe­cif­ic is­sues is “in­cred­ibly power­ful,” Claus­ing said.

That power is easy to tap.

To get a show on the air, you have to join Phil­lyCAM. That’s $25.

Then you take a train­ing class on how to use di­git­al video, get tested on what you’ve learned and then you’re cer­ti­fied to re­serve and use Phil­lyCAM’s equip­ment.

The show you make must end up on the pub­lic ac­cess chan­nel. If you want to get a reg­u­lar weekly time spot, you must turn in at least one new show per month, Claus­ing said. You can take oth­er courses to get stu­dio and edit­ing skills, too, she said.

Think you have what it takes to cre­ate in­ter­est­ing, in­nov­at­ive pro­gram­ming?

Go to www.phil­lycam.org ••

Re­port­er John Loftus can be reached at 215-354-3110 or jloftus@phillynews.com

You can reach at jloftus@bsmphilly.com.

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