Inside D.C. entertainment

Public-access TV: Everything but porn and gambling

August 13, 2010 - 10:56 AM
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sex tapes
These tapes were not created at a public-access channel. (Photo: Associated Press)

The only rule about public-access television is that there are no rules.

Actually, that's not entirely true, but you can say "fuck" as many times as you want and your program can last three hours. (In other words, Casino.) Just don't break any laws, especially those pertaining to obscenity — which is to say, no porn — or slander. Oh, and you can't run a gambling operation, either. (In other words, no Casino after all.)

"You can use the 'f'-bomb all you want," Jackie Steven, director of community programming at Arlington Independent Media, told a diverse audience of some 20 people at a Wednesday forum hosted by the D.C. Film Alliance. "It's all just a matter of the standards of the community."

Someone asked if she censored work.

"We do not," she replied.

The standards are little different in a place like Greenbelt, Md., where the community is — how to put it — more seasoned, and thus, wouldn't stand for such damnable execration. But a more frequent problem than cursing, said Greenbelt Access Television (GATE) executive director Malia Murray, are people who try to abuse the permissiveness of her organization to "try to start their wedding [video] business."

What AIM and GATE provide is an opportunity for anyone, regardless of talent or experience, to make their own film or TV show and to see it aired. Everything you would need — cameras, lighting equipment, Final Cut Pro — is available at absurdly low costs. They even show you how to use the stuff — for free, in GATE's case.

"We're tiny," said Murray. "We'll sit down with you." Not for an entire day, though. "Some people just aren't cut out to be editors, and I'll" —  she paused for comic effect — "walk out into the hallway. My job isn't to hold your hand."

AIM's training program is more structured, with courses ranging from $20 to $300. Other differences emerged during the forum: AIM charges membership fees, while GATE does not; AIM prohibits members from profiting from their work, while GATE simply asks for a cut; AIM's film festival, Rosebud, draws from all over the world and awards money to several winners, while GATE's festival, Utopia, is heavily local but offers no prize cash. The two organizations, however, have more in common than not, especially when it comes to the essential rules: You keep the copyright to your work, but they get to air whatever you make.

And, of course, don't break the law.

"If it's made with our equipment, it's going on the channel," said Steven, "but if you break the law, it's between you and the law."

"Is there a list of laws you can't break?" asked a man standing at the back.

Someone politely informed him of a helpful tool known as the internet — where, incidentally, you can find those few things that are unfit for public-access TV.

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