The Radical Alternatives to Commercial TV
(This is the second part of a two-part feature. Part one appeared Friday.)
PERHAPS the most effective weapon of the alternate television movement is the realization that past technological developments do not have to be limited to the purposes for which they were originally intended; indeed, that they are sometimes better suited for something else entirely. This is particularly true of cable TV. So true, in fact, that it may well be that in the case of cable TV, network television, in trying to extend its parameters to their fullest, has created the very element which will destroy it.
Cable television has been around a long time-almost as long as network TV. According to an article in the May 18 issue of The Nation, the first CATV station was founded in the late 1940's when it was discovered that more television sets could be sold if network reception wasn't so abominable in outlying areas. So CATV came into being-and still functions as a mere extension of network television. While network television has been using CATV to compensate for the deficiencies inherent in broadcasting, they have, however, missed out on the special properties of cable TV. Cable TV, because it transmits signals through coaxial cables, can operate at much lower transmission costs and has the potential to carry hundreds of channels. In these terms, it is easy to see how the way in which the network hogs the electronic frequencies forces it to operate as a highly centralized industry. Where network television must derive its revenues from the commercial sponsorship of its programming, the cable can and does run on simple installation and subscription fees (usually $10 to $20 for installation and about $5 per month).
Even this pales beside the potential impact of the laser on the video medium. Each laser is capable of transmitting one million video circuits, thus providing the capability of virtually free information transmission.
Today only about five to ten per cent of cable systems offer live programming of local origin. Most of this programming grew out of such simple fare as filling one or more empty channels with weather reports or ticker tape machines. Today live programming centers around events of local interest: newscasts, school activities, sports, political debates, public hearing, school board meetings, and children's programs.
However primitive such programming may be, it has provided the impetus necessary to bring CATV to heavily populated urban centers, a development that will necessitate more and more local programming. It is said that new media begin by doing the job of old media better. Cable television is now transmitting broadcast signals better. And it looks as though people are beginning to realize that the business of cable television is not the business of transmitting a better image of Lassie, it is the business of creating a decentralized communications network.
THE development of Cable TV will almost certainly result-to some degree at least-in the decentralization of television. Systems like the 42-channel installation in San Jose have the potential to change the function of television entirely. No longer do the channels have to be dominated by commercial programming. A cable station could be operated by technicians with programming controlled by the public. A staff could be set up to teach citizens groups who would like to make their own programs. Educational and vocational instruction could be given by television. And citizens could monitor the functions of the government rather than vice versa.
As an industry separate from network TV, cable TV is, however, still in its infancy and is just entering its first crucial period of growth. In addition to the 2400 operating television stations there were, as of January 1970, approximately 2100 additional communities where cable TV permits had been issued but no know construction started and approximately 1400 communities where CATV applications were pending before local governing bodies.
In these terms it becomes imperative that the cable TV industry's early growth be structured in such a way as to keep it an "open" medium, and obviously the Federal Communications Commission plays a key role in this. Though the FCC has been moving cautiously in making rulings regarding cable TV, it has in the words of Beryl Korat, editor of Radical Software, been "surprisingly helpful" in keeping CATV open and in fighting the commercial pressures that have made network television what it is today.
The FCC "common carrier" ruling, for instance, puts cable TV in an altogether different realm than network television by visualizing cable service in the same terms as telephone service; i.e., as a common carrier. This ruling precludes the possibility of censorship of any kind. Likewise, the FCC has gone a long way towards guaranteeing the decentralization of cable television by delegating the authority to grant franchises to local municipalities.
Equally significant is the FCC report on programming origination released July 1. In terms of the decentralization of cable TV, the most important of the rulings released in this report is the requirement that all cable stations with more than 3500 subscribers originate their own live cablecasting by April 1, 1971. A spokesman for the FCC says that the ruling is purposely vague about the number of hours of programming and insists the rule will be clarified after a period of experimentation. Moreover, the spokesman says that though the FCC has yet to decide exactly what will constitute programming, it will not allow stations to simply turn the monitor on a teletype machine as their own source of original programming. From the report:
Indeed we recognize that there is a question of whether we should go beyond the minimal rule and specify a minimum number of hours for local live origination....We adhere to the judgment that it is appropriate to afford a period of free experimentation and innovation by cable operators. However, there is one development which does require consideration. It has come to our attention that some cable operators simply lease their origination channel of a local radio station, which in turn presents its disc jockey shows over this channel for virtually the entire broadcast day. While the cable operator is perfectly free to enter into arrangements with local broadcast stations during the period of experimentation....the main purpose is to provide an outlet for local expression....We therefore make clear that the CATV may not enter into any arrangement which inhibits or prevents the substantial use of the cable facilities for local programming designed to inform the public on issues of local importance.
Under consideration by the FCC are rulings that would provide for two-way communications through cable TV and a proposal that would limit cable TV ownership to people not involved in the local media. This ruling is significant in that once the investment is made by commercial interests, it heavily tips the scale against future innovation.
If the FCC were only to move a little faster, it might well become the closest friend the alternate television movement has.
IF THERE IS one unified principle behind the diverse group of people who make up the alternate television movement, it is a commitment to the ideal that the airwaves should be free as channels of communications. And with this comes the dream of a two-way, interactive, decentralized communications system with total access both in terms of reception and transmission.
This sort of communications system could not exist in this country without incredible economic and political implications. If every television set could communicate with every other television set in this country, telephones would become obsolete. Videocassettes alone will cripple Hollywood even more than it is crippled now. In political terms, the decentralization of television will lend itself to countless aspects of daily life: communities will be defined more by issue, interests, or vocations than by geography. And on a personal level, total access to communication systems like this would enable each person to have more control over his life.
Of course the cultural radicals and technoanarchists who make up the alternate television movement operate in a context far different from the sort of things they envision. Indeed, operating in a vacuum-that is, off the air-they are reversing the hardware-first, software-second pattern that has characterized the development of the television networks. Since the programming by groups like Raindance, People's Video Theatre and Videofreex, three New York City groups who make up a loosely formed alliance, does not appear on the public screens, they can operate with much greater freedom and they have literally to take their cameras and TV sets to the people.
This, the taking of the equipment to the people, has been the means and content of much of the programming to come out of these three groups. Using a common technological base-the porta-pak of the Sony AV series with half-inch black and white rapes-as almost all people who are active in the alternate television movement do, the People's Video Theatre has been loading their equipment in mobile vans and going out in the streets to fulfill the six objectives they cite in Radical Software:
1) to become a model for other video theatres;
2) to provide the people of the community a means of exposing their goods, services and ideas;
3) to introduce and develop video journalism;
4) to provide a public video studio which can be used by acting groups, dancers, therapists, political figures, etc.;
5) to stimulate community dialogue through a live forum;
6) to establish a video library.
In trying to fulfill these objectives most of the programming of PVT has been characterized by the abandonment of the stilted, formalistic interviewer approach used by network journalists. The result is that the people who do the talking-the minister of the Young Lords who gives a guided tour of the El Barrio, the observers and participants in the New York Women's Liberation March,-feel less constricted and are able to abandon the on-stage, false media personality that network television inflicts upon them. In one PVT sequence, a black shines the shoes of a white man. "I'll tell you one thing," he says and looks up at his well-dressed customer, "the people who are on top, always end up stepping on the people who are down."
Most of the other radical video groups cover a broader range of material than does PVT. Raindance, as well as groups like San Francisco's Mobile Muck Truck and New Year's Global Village, covers both culturally and politically radical events.
FOR THE MOST PART, the best work done by groups in the alternate television movement is of the sort that cannot be translated into the print medium. The only opportunity for public viewing of their work is when about thirty people gather in the small downtown Manhattan studios every two or three weeks. But most of the video groups are not in show business. A lot of the work that has been done-work with the FCC-cannot be seen at all. And potentially the most exciting things will not happen until the airwaves are really free for public use.
The greatest advantage of the people who make up the alternate television movement is that their goals and tactics are the same: they want to create a system that will move information better and more fairly than the present one, and in order to do that they will have to know how to use the present information system better. The battle with the corporations is more than a simple economic one, it is one of information systems. The television industry has long controlled the airwaves simply because it controlled the hardware and it was able to use that hardware to convince the public that its system was best, that "pay-TV" (CATV) was bad. Now the networks find themselves still in control of the hardware, but not the information system; and they are finally skating on thin ice.