CATV and I Am TV
New programming, local stars, and impending budget cuts: The past, present, and future of Erie's public access television.
The channel button is soft on the remote; the baseless arrows that point in two simple directions – up and down – are worn from obsessive surfing; the common couch potato's eyes turn bloodshot, the whites partitioned with red cracks like a cold marble floor; exhausted pupils dilate in response to commercial-break cliffhangers and constrict back again as the fleeting transitions between sales pitches and stories carry on.
Television is intoxicating. It fills a void in everyday life by letting its viewers live vicariously through their beloved sitcoms. High definition is clearer than a crystal glass, making sports shows, action movies, and nature documentaries look like they're occurring right outside the illuminated ever-changing window. When we can't laugh in our own lives, we search for a segment that'll draw our lips into a crescent, when we lose our small daily battles, we look for a program that will empower us, and when we're sad, we find a show that'll let our remaining tears seep into our shirt sleeves. But in all our efforts to fill this void, we're sitting in silence on our life-draining thrones, subconsciously pleading for a voice in all the commercialized chaos of cable television.
The content of a citizen's message is important, but what is more important is that each individual has the freedom and opportunity to vocalize these words – be it a sermon, a satire, or service announcement – if their heart's desire is to express such a point. While the First Amendment does not restrict our speech (at least not entirely), we can't expect to demand a time slot on television – in the midst of Fox News, ESPN, etc. – to transmit these thoughts. Many television stations are like immense audio-visual troughs; they aim to feed as much mental mush as they can, weighing us down until we can't move when the commercials hold us hostage. It's about money, access – and most of us can't afford it nor have the connections. Commercial stations control us, whereas community stations liberate us, allowing us to become our own chefs with our own ingredients – they just provide the utensils.
If you're willing to learn the basic recipes and cook for yourself, the guys at CATV can teach you how to serve it – at least while the kitchen doors are still open. Running below a flock of black bird's feet, through a barrage of braided cable lines, your message can reach every TV in the City of Erie. Whether you want to Bible thump, talk politics, chat senior-citizen living, or highlight the Erie Arts, CATV is the heart that helps pump the public's message through those wire veins loud and… well, standard definition, clear.
Community Access Television is "an independent, nonprofit corporation authorized by the City of Erie to administer the public access channel on Time Warner Cable Channel 2," according to the organization's website, CATVerie.org. The studio is located just outside downtown Erie at 142 W. 12th St. where you'll see a small, white building, highlighted in neon-green trim, sporting a sign with a winking – or possibly wincing – yellow cat, its tail high in the air, like an antenna, backed with three purple letters reading: C-A-T.
Coincidentally, the light, knotty pine, wood paneling in CATV's offices has an uncanny resemblance to the set of the world's most famous public access television show, "Wayne's World." Stepping through CATV's doors is kind of like stepping into a time machine, except you only step back into the '90s.
Bob Lechner, the executive director of CATV says the essential mission of their station is to, "empower community voices and visions." Without any pussy footing around, it's a way for the public to speak out. "In many cases we're serving an underserved population," Bob continues. "I like to think that we're an outlet; [CATV] is a safety valve, it's a voice for people that might express themselves in not very healthy ways." His hope is that individuals will realize they can have a presence in the community without having to make it known through destructive actions.
CATV is a community resource. For $45 you can become a member of the studio, and after taking a few training classes, you can gain access to lights, cameras, editing software, and most importantly, broadcasting equipment. Once you know the inner-workings of the studio, you're free to start producing television shows for public access.
While most of the producers write shows suitable from all audiences, the FCC has granted Safe Harbor Hours from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. for those who want to craft a racier script, or for those live shows that'll attract loud mouth callers, such as "The Alley's" – the most recently aired segment to use Safe Harbor Hours – where the live calls went uncensored. Surprisingly, as of this article being written, there are no productions on CATV that have been banished to the late night because of adult content.
The rules are minimal at CATV: As long as you give them content to broadcast, you can use their equipment to speak your mind. But if the show insinuates and advocates overthrowing the government, however, or is slanderous or libelous, or patently obscene, it may have to be reviewed by the staff. After edits – generally – the show can be aired again in their revised form.
The station broadcasts 24/7. The channel's range of content is a vast spectrum from church groups to movie critiques, senior living, storm chasing, opinions on hydro-fracturing, and puppet shows involving nonsensical Internet movies about cats and wolves selling Old Spice. There isn't much you can't see on CATV, and this is where Bob finds the passion for his job.
"It's the free speech aspect of things," he shares. "We don't even really preview anything that goes on. We're not supposed to."
But what specifically can't be in a program are commercials.
Because there are no commercials on Public Access Television, 95 percent of CATV's income is acquired through grants from the cable franchise and funding from the City of Erie. But a new cable franchise is being negotiated with Time Warner Cable and the city. Now, CATV's finances are in jeopardy.
A franchise is simply an agreement between a city and a cable provider. In return for the cable company running lines through the city, Erie takes a 5 percent fee, and one-fifth of that fee goes to Public Access television.
But the city has fallen on budgetary hard times and has recently informed CATV that there may not be consistent funding for their studio. There was a discussion with City Council on June 5 about the new franchise ordinates, which could eliminate almost $250,000 from CATV's annual budget. However, the "discussion" was glazed over, demeaning CATV funding to a mere mention in the meeting. Coming up, though, is a public hearing, which is to be held on June 19, when a second – possibly refigured – reading of the contract will be given, but more likely, it'll just be a public signing of the new contract.
"We know the city is hurting in their budgeting, we know they're losing their tax base in terms of ways to generate revenue, but truly we're here for the citizens of Erie," Bob says, leaning forward in his folding chair. And over the last 24 months, CATV has managed to support over 45 nonprofit organizations including Africa 6000 International, The Achievement Center, Community Health Net, Erie Art Museum, and Erie Homes for Children and Adults. "We promote the city," Bob finishes, gazing at the dated wood paneling in his office.
In late May, during the negotiation process, City Council alluded to a new plan that works on a year-to-year basis. In the coming years, it is probable that Bob will have to annually ask for funding and justify CATV's inclusion into the city's budget. "In a year when they may choose to cut us significantly, it almost smacks of censorship, maybe we said or did something that they didn't like." Bob says with the future seemingly in mind. In the wisdom of the 1991 franchise act, the city had to set aside this funding for community access television, separating finances from free speech, limited the chances of such a situation to occur.
What's more is that Time Warner Cable has decided it would not award grants for CATV without creating a new line item on each cable customer's receipt, which would state where this extra money is going. That doesn't sound too bad, right? However, Mayor Joe Sinnott and City Council agreed it would be wrong for Time Warner Cable to make this a new line item, as it would be objectionable for cable subscribers in the city of Erie to see a 15 cent increase on the bill. Meanwhile, "The average cable customer in the United States paid $81 per month for television services in the year 2012," Bob says, offering the number provided by the Cable Television Association in an exhausted kind of disbelief.
But there is still another option for funding. CATV could begin underwriting shows.
Underwriting is what you see on PBS or WQLN, "This program is brought to you by…" is not considered commercial content. However, Bob is worried they'll have to ask producers to find underwriting for their own programs. "There is going to be less and less desire to underwrite programs that are in standard definition," Bob explains. "[They] don't look as good because they're made with the 1991 vintage gear that we have." And underwriters want warm, fuzzy, high-definition content – something CATV can only produce if they can achieve funding.
No grants from the cable company means no new equipment – and even more vital, no funding from the city means no fuel for operations. Moreover, like antique cars, these obsolete electronics are expensive to repair, except in the end, the car gets a shiny coat of paint and a "classic" or "vintage" label while the cameras still produce a pixilated picture.
"All our stuff we keep running with spit and baling wire like Scotty Star Trek," Bob says, with a laugh. For those of you who don't know, "Scotty" is the engineer aboard the Enterprise in the show "Star Trek." If CATV were a starship, DJ Barker, the Information Systems Technician would be Montgomery Scott, fixing everything from the warp drive to the subatomic scan in the force field.
DJ stumbled into CATV in the late '90 during some of the darkest years of his life. "Previous to working with CATV, I was pretty much a suicidal shut-in. I didn't have a direction in life… I was becoming a recluse… a hermit," DJ admits, reminiscing on his days devoid of natural light. But the idea of having a voice was a beacon for him to come out from within his gloomy refuge he'd fortified. His drive to broadcast forced him to unlock his doors, pull open his shades, see some daylight, and reunite with society.
Before working for CATV, he'd work his third-shift janitorial job and edit in the studio during the day. "I started as a member, became an employee, and they'll probably bury me under this place," DJ says in a laugh. He has been working with CATV since 2006, and as a self-proclaimed jack-of-all-trades, DJ labors to keep things running smoothly. In the midst of all the repairs, from that busted warp drive to the glitch in the subatomic scan – his essential tasks are to help pilot this Erie Enterprise by ensuring there is content to be broadcasted and make sure the programs make it on the air.
"I decided that I wanted to put something on [CATV] to try to tell my story, which at the time I didn't even know I had a story," DJ says. "I just wanted people to see something different."
To break up the monotony of some stuffy scripture readings, Bible babble, and God talk, he began producing a puppet show called "The Mister Bear Today Show" to tell his undiscovered story. "I have nothing against religious programming," DJ says whole-heartedly, "but I had to have something on the channel to balance out the number of religious shows that [CATV] had." Interestingly and importantly, roughly 50 percent of CATV's programming is still religiously affiliated. DJ's show may not directly reflect his life, but it allowed for some of the pent up insanity – stored in his head like an old, forgotten box, buried beneath nights of watching mop strands swirl across a dirty floor – to finally go free into the cable lines.
After a couple productions, DJ reduced his social anxiety and stepped out from behind his puppet stage, still moving to the second safest spot – behind the camera. But he was also establishing himself as a talented producer, and soon he was doing more work on others' shows than his own. After a few months, he started filming and editing with other CATV members, ultimately meeting with other passionate producers. While DJ never found a common bond with what he describes as "the truck driver mentality" third-shift crew at his janitorial job, he was able to use his new common thread to weave friendships in the studio. "[CATV] taught be how to interact with people. It's taught me how to deal with real life."
In contrast with his new understanding of life, his show "Please Stand By," is far from factual. The premise of the show is simple, clever, and outlandish: What would animals broadcast if they took over a TV station?
With its epileptic transitions, spliced with bizarre Internet footage, and undertones of creepiness due to big, fuzzy, life-sized creature costumes, "Please Stand By" is the show that reminds us that you can put just about anything on public access. The canned laughter and audience cheer in Episode 14, "Cheesy Schwarma," is reminiscent of something Hunter S. Thompson would find inspiration from during a long night in a hotel room, dying to make sense of the nonsensical.
The animals are played by DJ and co-writer and producer Joe Kwitkowski. The anthropomorphic rodents all carry a different slew of strange talents, issues, and ethnicities. "[The animals] have strange backstories. The kangaroo is from Russia, the elephant – his name is Chung-Kei – he's a Samurai pachyderm," he says, as if thick-skinned, sword-wielding Japanese mammals are commonly written in and type-casted as warriors.
DJ's main character is a skunk, who has had an amazing revelation with help from his co-star, a half wolf-half raccoon played by the show's second half, Joe: If I make a television show, then humans will bring me food.
The desk in DJs office now serves as his puppet stage. Except, today if you ask him what he likes more, sitting behind the scenes or out under the stage lights, he'll tell you he'd rather be in front of the camera. After years of working with CATV, DJ has found a creative family here, and the studio has become a second home for him.
Despite the subject matter of "Please Stand By," he takes his job seriously and still believes the voice that CATV allows the citizens of Erie to have is significant. "I think [what we do] is important because we give people a voice," DJ says.
"It [means] that somebody might run a program that [is] critical of things going on in the city," Bob says, possibly thinking of his next meeting with City Council. Although little of the programming is directly political, at least it is a possibility, and as Bob reminds us, "It's a healthy thing in a free society."
The whole idea behind a well-developed television show is to give the impression of experience without actually having to go through the experience. However, our society loves being on camera, being part of the show rather than apart from it. We can scroll through a thousand mouse-clicks' worth of pictures of ourselves and reminisce about each one; likewise, if the counter goes up on our YouTube channel, we smile and watch our own video again, as if to see if we're still in it.
So, what if Erie was the subject of a network, a real commercial network?
No longer would we simply see our celebrities merely on television screens, but rather in our city's streets. Erie would be TV, you would be TV, and even I would be TV – all with: I am TV.
I Am TV is not only an independent, local television network but the persona of network president, Scott Jones. As if his eyes were two lenses themselves, he wants to bring the experience he's found in Erie – from concert coverage to counterculture – to your television screen.
He's got a grin that indicates he's truly happy to see the sun each day, and a couple worry lines, like scars, that note he hasn't always experienced life through the lens of a camera. Caused by his days of combat in Afghanistan, Scott pushed down on the fast-forward button of life and wouldn't let up when he arrived back to the States.
He talks fast but confident, as if the ideas are coming to him faster than his words can be collected, and he's trying to get them all out there before he can't anymore. His I Am TV persona has intensity to it, an intensity that breeds a contagious enthusiasm for life in the Erie community and all its opportunities. "Living everyday like it's your last" isn't just a cliché idiom for Scott – it is a principle. "We should be ashamed for not doing more with what we have," he says, still smiling.
"There's pre-deployment Scott, and there is post-deployment Scott, and post-deployment Scott came back on a mission to take a city." If Erie had a Pirate Radio, he'd be the one standing at the ship's wheel. "Post-deployment Scott came back on a mission to affect change."
Scott believes Erie is in the midst of a renaissance, he believes the importance of art, music, and culture is coming back to this city, and he wants to be a part of this transformation. "There are a lot of organizations out there that are doing the same types of things," he admits. But these organizations may be lacking the perspective I Am TV has acquired. "We have primetime cable television… who else can get primetime television access? I Am TV, that's it!"
From 8 to 10 p.m., Thursday, Friday, and Saturday on channels 180 [Erie, Erie County] and 225 [Crawford County], viewers can experience the artistic rebirth of Erie on I Am TV.
If Scott is steering the ship, picture Paul Gorman, executive producer of "Inked in Erie," with the telescope, keeping an eye out from the crow's nest. While Scott is more sales-minded, Paul lends himself to content.
Their dynamic is nothing new – one guy at the wheel, another looking beyond the horizon charting the direction – but it's this contrast in personality that makes a creative organization thrive. Years ago, when Paul was still playing in a band called the Gypsy Poets, Scott approached the guys about being filmed for a television show, Scott's first attempt at launching an independent TV station.
Later, Scott approached Paul again, but this time his station had a mission, "to transform lives in the community by building [a] creative outlet and connecting people to this outlet."
For over a decade, Paul had been producing independent films, shows, and webisodes with no real outlet to connect them to. "Scott knew about my work," Paul says, while measuring an imaginary portfolio packed full of work with his hands "So he approached me with the idea of the network and said, 'Hey, I got a whole bunch of primetime television space, would you want to develop a show or two for me?' and I'm like, 'Holy Hell, Scott. Yes!'"
There are three aspects that separate I Am TV from CATV: funding, content, and the end goal. I Am TV is for-profit, meaning they have advertisers and commercials between and during their broadcasts.
"It's all still community-based," says Paul, counting up the local advertisers – some of which include Arts Bakery, Harley Davidson, and Dave Hallman Chevrolet.
Because I Am TV has a costly and limited timeslot, Scott and Paul are choosier about who puts what where. "It's not like anybody can walk in and drop something off," Paul says, fully aware that without quality content, Scott won't be able to find funding. "We're after something different. We want to be more engaging, we want to get the community involved, we want to draw out the creative people, and give them a place to work."
I Am TV is still in its infancy stage, launching March 23, 2013, but it's generating revenue – enough to start paying producers a small wage. However, this also means limiting what content, and how much of it, is put on air. The hope is that quality content will attract more sponsors, fueling the team with more broadcasting time, which in turn means more Erie producers, journalists, and artists have a shot at landing a local job they're passionate about "Anybody in the region that wants to do a show has that opportunity," Paul states, likely with the caveat of quality in mind,
"Our short-term goals right now are to stay in primetime… Where we want to end is to be a 24/7 network that reaches as far as we can go."
Where I Am TV has made its biggest mark is through "Inked in Erie," a television show akin to "LA Ink," "Miami Ink," and "Inked," except it's kept at a gritty, street-level without the added glamour of Hollywood interference. Erie is home to more than a dozen tattoo parlors, a huge "Inked" community, and a dramatic undercurrent of tattoo-artist trash-talking.
"'Inked In Erie' has become – I don't want to overstate it – a viral phenomenon. The Facebook page has reached almost 300,000 people," Paul says while pointing to a stack of DVDs of the first season.
With a clever concoction of curiosity-provoking culture and a chance to see familiar faces, "Inked in Erie" is a double-threat when it comes to piquing the audience's interest. "The 'Ink' community itself is its own subculture, but what I managed to do with the show is get people in our community on television."
In Episode 1 of the first season, the I Am TV crew follows Jack, a 78 year-old army veteran and terminal cancer patient whose dying wish is to get his first tattoo. Patrick Stephens, aka Phat Pat, over at Vicious Rumors received a call from Erie hospice and the Make-A-Wish Foundation regarding the war hero's yearning for ink. Jack's family was adamantly opposed to the idea of him getting tattooed, so much so, that they threatened to sue anyone involved in the process. Thus, the old timer's skin was inked in secrecy, only Phat Pat and I Am TV's camera crew were present and the parlor even locked its doors until Jack left with his new tattoo, the "little life owl" he always wanted.
By the time he arrived back at his nursing home, his family had found out, but they softened when they saw Jack, so proud of his bird. Since that first episode, Jack has returned for another tattoo, an Eagle over his heart, and plans to go back for a third, a mouse.
At the heart of it, CATV and I Am TV have the same longing to capture these beautiful moments in our underexposed city. "We really want to know what the community wants," says Scott. Through social media, which Scott has deemed I Am TV's "foundation," these stations can reach out to the public like never before. I Am TV holds live TV contests via Facebook and Twitter where people can win free "ink" for submitting a picture of their worst tattoo. Conversely, CATV is glad to give lessons and provide resources for anyone longing for a public voice.
As there may very well be a renaissance in the Erie arts, as Scott Jones indicated, we should cultivate our local up-and-comers by continuing to support local organizations like this. But we must also ensure we have the means to communicate – rich, poor, or underserved, a privilege Bob Lechner is scared to lose if CATV doesn't receive proper funding.
"We don't know where CATV is going to be in a year, but we're trying to make it symbiotic so that they can help us and we can help them," Paul adds.
By the time an experience has been filmed, edited, and projected through our televisions, we sometimes forget what we're watching and why we're watching, diluted from all the junk food television. But these local stations are broadcasting from our city, our streets, and maybe even your neighborhood, and they play a vital role in our community by showing us the stories of you, of me, of our city – of Erie and its people.
Matthew Flowers can be contacted at mFlowers@ErieReader.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @MFlowersER.