Cable was a wide-open medium in 1970, the year Manhattan became the first major metropolitan area to sign a franchise agreement with a cable company. The purpose of wiring the city was to improve color reception of the network stations—not to offer original programming. But activists like George Stoney, Theodora Sklover, and others saw a new potential in the technology. With added channels on the dial, New York could diversify programming and open up the field of television production to the general public. Their successful campaign led to the Public Access Cable television mandate in the 1970s franchise: two channels would offer free, (nearly) uncensored airtime, first-come, first-served. Over the course of the next decade, time slots on these channels became a hot ticket, as a subculture of independent, no-budget producers emerged, inventing new ones to fit the ephemeral, unspectacular logic of public access. The center of this phenomenon was ETC/Metro Access Studios, a privately owned live studio facility on 23rd Street.
This miniature oral history is a follow-up to two Moving Image Source articles from 2009 about the history of public access in New York, Out of the Vast Wasteland and The Poor Soul of Television. Those pieces have some of the errors endemic to a reliance on secondary sources: names and dates are correct, but some conclusions are wrongly drawn. In the spirit of correction, this article, culled from nine interviews, tells the same story from the perspective of some of the people who were actually there.
Public access has a fundamental PR problem, which one producer summed up with this rhetorical question: "If anybody can do it, who would want to?" I don't think there is any particular personality type that is drawn to public access; as with anything, it attracts good, bad, and ugly. But these people (each of whom I met by chance through the help of someone else I interviewed) have some things in common. All are creative, and all seem to have a thick skin and a high threshold for frustration. None were paid for their shows. Most actually shelled out their own money for studio time. Three admitted to suffering career setbacks later as a result of appearing on public access. They approached their work in television with a level of intensity and passion that only exists in the realm of avocations and came away with uniquely philosophical perspectives on the nature of television.
EMILY ARMSTRONG — Public access coordinator at Manhattan Cable TV, 1974-1979
COCA CRYSTAL — Producer of If I Can't Dance, You Can Keep Your Revolution, 1977-1995
JAIME DAVIDOVICH — President of the Artists Television Network and producer of The Live! Show and Soho Television Presents, 1976-1984
WILLIAM HOHAUSER — Producer of The Vole Show, 1977-1997, and studio manager at Metro Access Studios, 1977-1984
SCOTT LEWIS — Producer of The Scott & Gary Show, 1983-1989
ANTON PERICH — Host/producer of Anton Perich Presents and the upcoming Fabulous Underground on the Manhattan Neighborhood Network, 1973-2011
PAUL TSCHINKEL — Producer of Paul Tschinkel's Inner-Tube and Artifacts, 1974-1984
GARY WINTER — Producer of The Scott & Gary Show, 1983-1989
LISA YAPP — Correspondent on Tomorrow's Television Tonight, producer of Yapp Raps, 1982-1986
ANTON PERICH: I grew up without television in the former Yugoslavia. I could keep my distance from American television; I had no emotional attachment. Later I lived in Paris and didn't watch television there much until the revolution of 1968. It was shocking and inspiring to see barricades and burning cars in the streets of Paris, like seeing Marat on TV. Suddenly television was relevant, inspiring, and had something to say in its own language. It was a revelation for me. When I moved to New York in 1970, I discovered soap operas. I realized I could take this genre and expand it into something provocative and contemporary.
JAIME DAVIDOVICH: The TV set was on top of a china cabinet at our apartment in Buenos Aires. Transmission started at 6 p.m. I remember waiting for an hour before the broadcast started, just looking at the gray bars. The first program would be cartoons, and the whole family would sit around the dining room table and watch, mesmerized. When I came to the United States I used television to learn English. Mitch Miller, Red Skelton, Ernie Kovacs, Ed Sullivan, Flip Wilson were my favorite hosts. But the expectation and drama and inspiration of those gray bars, before the magic started, sticks in my memory.
WILLIAM HOHAUSER: I didn't really realize it until many years later, but I was trying to recreate a show that I'd seen as a kid but barely remembered: The Soupy Sales Show. There was anarchy on his show. Clearly, he only had so much material, and the rest of the time he was running around the set and talking to people off-camera. Here's a person just on TV. It's not a person pretending to play someone, it's not an entertainer. I mean he's entertaining, but he's just a person on TV.
SCOTT LEWIS: The Soupy Sales Show had an edginess and a trashy, DIY quality that I was fascinated by as a six-year-old. I also used to love to watch the local teen dance shows in New York. American Bandstand spawned those shows, but Bandstand was the "safe" version. It featured kids who you couldn't really relate to, too clean and neat, and played bland pop for the most part. On the local shows, they played better music and the kids all looked like kids from the neighborhood, bad skin and all. Those shows were fun! It was real—a bunch of local kids in the latest hip duds dancing to a cool band. When they were interviewed, they sounded just like Richie and Lisa from across the street. I thought, "I can do that."
EMILY ARMSTRONG: New York City was so different in the early 1970s. Cable TV was so primitive, a real Wild West kind of thing. There were these good-looking cowboy-type guys out wiring the city for Manhattan Cable TV (MCTV). They showed up on my street and dug a trench all the way from Orchard to Houston. I don't think they always had permits—they just did what they wanted. Park their truck, dig their holes, and throw some cables down the hole. You could never do that now. And the cable service was so bad that sometimes these guys would cover up the logos on the installation trucks. Because they would get so harassed by the customers who would run up to them on the street shouting, "My cable doesn't work!"
HOHAUSER: In the '70s, cable television was a small thing, less corporate. Cable companies hadn't gotten this ridiculous idea that they would be content providers. They were just operating as big antennas.
DAVIDOVICH: Cable made "narrowcasting" to a specialized audience possible. But it was an unexplored medium. They say that for a new medium to have economic importance, it has to have at least 30 percent penetration. At that time cable didn't. Only Manhattan and a few other cities in the country had it. And in Manhattan, there was no service below 14th Street until 1976.
HOHAUSER: In the 1970 franchise, the city told the cable company they had to provide two channels for public access, and they begrudgingly did. Manhattan Cable Company had a small staff, mostly technicians whose job was to keep the cable system broadcasting. So it was a very small community there.
ARMSTRONG: I was hired full-time at MCTV after graduating from college and worked there for four years as Public Access Coordinator. I would typically have 10 appointments a day. People would come in and tell me what their show was going to be about. I listened to one crazy, creative idea after another. I would give them a time slot. Channel C was for series; D for specials and one-time shows. Usually people didn't start with a series. They'd do a few specials and then get the momentum to do a series.
HOHAUSER: My family didn't have cable because it wasn't available in our neighborhood yet, but my friend's parents had it. You turned to C and D, and we were like, "What is this? Who are these people? Everything's black-and-white, and it's blurry and oddball." The channels never explained, "This is public access. Why don't you come down and do something?" It was just title cards. Maybe somebody announced the next program, but usually not. The shows just came on and off. There were no listings and you couldn't find out what was going to happen next. Just these sparks of wackiness that you would come across when you turned the dial on the cable box.
PERICH: I don't remember how I found out about cable access, but I remember going to the MCTV Company offices with my tape and reserving a one-hour weekly slot, Sunday nights at 11.
ARMSTRONG: Time slots were precious, and prime-time slots were tied up by organized groups like Trinity Church and community boards. Tapes had to be 28 or 58 minutes and had to be playable on our equipment. No commercial advertising was allowed, although some people would try to slip them in, in funny backward ways. Otherwise there was not much in terms of content regulation. We had Fran Beck, a dominatrix whose show ran immediately after the Boy Scouts of America.
PERICH: My first show aired on January 18, 1973. It was called Mr. Fixit, starring Sami Melange, Susan Blond, Danny Fields, and Tinkerbelle. I watched it at a friend's apartment on Fifth Avenue with Joan Lee, Taylor Mead, and Wayne County. The TV went blank several times, and muzak replaced the original soundtrack. It was a stunning surprise—we realized that we had witnessed the first time in American television history that a show was censored on the air. We celebrated.
DAVIDOVICH: I first heard about public access in 1975. I had a video show at the Kitchen, and there I met Steve Lawrence, who was one of the people working in public access at MCTV. He explained the concept to me, and so I took one of my videos there and they gave me half an hour to put it on [on Channel D]. I went to a bar and watched the program, and it looked great!
ARMSTRONG: A few producers had their own production equipment, but most needed referrals to facilities or freelancers. There were a few production facilities, Downtown Community TV, Young Filmmakers, and Electronic Arts Intermix. If they wanted to do a live show, they would go next door to the studio Jim Chladek ran.
HOHAUSER: Jim Chladek opened ETC/Metro Access Studios around 1973. He started it specifically because he wanted to produce a live show and there was nowhere to do it. So he rented the office next to the cable company and ran a cable across the alleyway from 110 East 23rd Street to 120 East 20th Street. The cables were just hanging in the air for years, going from the fire escape to their master controls, from the ninth floor to the 10th floor. That's how it was connected for a really long time. MCTV was like, "Oh, you're sending us cable? That's wonderful. There wasn't any contract or permit. They just took the cables and plugged them in.
ARMSTRONG: Chladek came up with the live call-in format idea. He had this funky telephone with four buttons on it that used to get people on the air. So much stuff started there, like the Telepsychics. You'd call in and they'd feel your vibrations. Dan Aykroyd spoofed that idea on Saturday Night Live.
DAVIDOVICH: Metro Access—that studio is something that should be preserved! Jim Chladek was the master of low-tech.
HOHAUSER: Chladek's first show was a live chess show. Every caller would suggest a move, and he'd play against them. His show Inter-Active Cable was an industry talk show. He was on every Sunday night. People would call in and talk about communications issues and different technologies. Jim was trying to do interactive television. We had game shows happening at one point, where people called in and were the contestants by phone.
COCA CRYSTAL: Jim Chladek was the most amazing public access pioneer of New York City. Without him there wouldn't have been any of these shows. William [Hohauser] is also a pioneer and one of the most wonderful people. He was my director. We had a little group of friends that were part of Metro Access. I liked all their shows, and they liked mine.
LISA YAPP: MCTV didn't provide a studio like Manhattan Neighborhood Network does today. You had to raise your own money and rent a studio. Over at Jim's place it was a mishmash of people. It attracted people who were independent-minded, renegades. Without Chladek, none of us would ever have been able to do a show.
HOHAUSER: I was 16 when I started The Vole Show, in 1977. Didn't know anyone who was doing a show then. There was this big article in the Village Voice around '76 that explained it, and when I found out it was open to anyone, my friends and I said, "Let's try it out!" We got access to equipment and we tried to be ingenious, funny people, and that's how we got started.
CRYSTAL: I had worked for an underground newspaper called the East Village Other, and as such I was part of the New York antiwar scene. Some of my friends who were Yippies had started a public access show, The Yippie Show. And when their show folded, I said, "Why can't I do my own show?" I made a few phone calls, and the next thing you know I was on TV. That was 1977.
Part of the reason I started was that two years earlier I had adopted my four-year-old nephew, Gus, who has a number of disabilities. I had kinda dropped out of the Movement and the scene to take care of him. I was trying to prove to the world that you could have a kid like Gus and still be involved in hip, cool things. And it was unusual for a young lady to start an enterprise of this sort on her own. But I believed in it, and my show ended up being much better than The Yippie Show ever was.
DAVIDOVICH: When we started doing The Live! Show in 1978, we did it at Metro Access. There it was very informal with very basic equipment. You go, you improvise a show live, and you pay $50 for half an hour. You didn't have a script or a whole staff of floor managers, you'd get two cameras and two chairs and the rest was anything goes.
HOHAUSER: Metro Access had a volunteer program, and I got involved on the weekends, working on shows. When I graduated from high school, Jim offered me a job. He said, "If you work here, you get to do a show and you don't have to pay me." Well, how generous! A number of people who worked there took advantage of that by doing their own shows.
At one point Jim decided he was going to have a special "Kids Deal" from noon to 6 p.m., which was a dead time for other programming. Kids could come in and pay half price and use the black-and-white equipment. That's when a lot of teens showed up.
CRYSTAL: I did my show exclusively at Metro Access. The hour of studio time cost $35, but I didn't have any money, so I went to Chladek, and I said, I'll work for you. He paid me $5 an hour, maybe less, but I worked off $35 worth of work per week to pay for my show. Eventually they closed down the black-and-white studio and they only had the color studio, so I had to come up with $135 a week to do the show in color. So instead of doing just a couple hours, I pretty much started working there full-time. I was at one point the "executive director" of Metro Access.
YAPP: I was trained as an actress, looking for work. I had seen an ad in Backstage magazine looking for people to come on a talk show on public access and talk about their lifestyle in New York. They didn't tell me it was a dating show. This was before Match.com, and doing something like this reeked of desperation. The thing started, and I was very embarrassed but too chicken to walk off. So I was very sarcastic. And after the show, Ted Estabrook, who was producing the show, came up and told me I was funny. I started as a production trainee with Estabrook at his studio. I did a few gossip-column-style shows with him, Dirt and Yapp Raps. I also started hanging around Metro Access, helping with shows and doing makeup. Jim Chladek offered me the job of office manager, along with Coca Crystal. This was around 1982.
HOHAUSER: I was the studio manager. If someone came in and wanted to do a show, I'd say, What do you need? Oh, I need two cameras and color and tape playback and I want to record it and we're gonna take phone calls and I need a record player. And I'd say, "Okay. Do you have a crew, or do you need a crew?" That was very important. Nowadays there are robot cameras, so it's not that important, but back then it was.
DAVIDOVICH: William Hohauser was just a kid, but he was doing his own show, directing other peoples' shows, doing the audio, working the telephone. He was like a wizard!
HOHAUSER: At one point I was directing 30 shows a week. I had fun working on Jaime's show (The Live! Show), Coca Crystal's If I Can't Dance, You Can Keep Your Revolution, and Nick Yanni's show (Tomorrow's Television Tonight). A lot of the call-in shows were done by my friends. Some of the psychics were fun to be around, whether you agreed with what they were doing or not. I liked the anarchy shows, like The Crank Call Show, but I also liked the shows that were dry, like one talk show called Telecommunication and Information Revolution. They were talking about things that were very interesting. I thought it was important that those topics could be discussed on television. There was this other guy, Stefan Eins, who did a show called Fashion Moda. He would sometimes spend half an hour just balancing objects. I thought, "This is great. This is why there should be public access."
DAVIDOVICH: I did the show at Metro Access only for a short time, then moved to another place, the Community Film Workshop uptown. It was a professional studio that was three or four notches above Metro Access. But very interesting shows came out of there, like Glenn O'Brien's TV Party and Tomorrow's Television Tonight.
CRYSTAL: Glenn O'Brien was a guest on my show, and the next day he was recognized by so many people that he decided to go ahead and do his own show. I helped him get time at the studio and acted as his floor manager for a while because TV Party lacked structure. That's how I became friends with Debbie Harry.
YAPP: It was a community. It was a crazy place. Not that everybody liked each other. But they all came together for television and for public access. The studio was on 23rd and Park, on the 2nd floor. Everybody just seemed to be dropping by. And there were other weird people in the building, you know, dominatrixes working late at night. A lot of people, even if they weren't doing a show, would drop by just to see what was going on.
GARY WINTER: I had worked in the videotape library at WNET for two years while completing college at night, thinking if I paid my dues, made the right connections, I'd be a producer by 25. And I did all that. But it turned out the people who got the PA jobs were Ivy League sons and daughters of major donors. One day a PA came down there wearing jodhpurs, and I realized I was doomed. So I quit and started volunteering at Metro Access one night a week.
HOHAUSER: The personalities that would come into public access could be quite trying at times. It's one thing if you work in commercial television, making $100,000 a year, and you have to deal with quirky individuals who don't know how to behave themselves, but I was making like $20 a day and all these people were coming in, screaming and causing problems. After the musical Annie opened, I couldn't tell you how many little girls showed up at the studio singing, "The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow." It was horrific! I was like, "Stop it! Stop it! Is there some way we can stop these people from coming in here?" But Jim was very tolerant, and so was I. As long as they didn't destroy the place I was sort of okay with it.
YAPP: The facility at Metro Access was so scarily run-down. People would walk in and their faces would just drop like, "How did I get booked on this thing?" Joan Rivers went into shock when she saw the bathroom. It still had one of those old-fashioned pull-chain water-in-the-box things. In Chladek's office on the ninth floor, the top floor of the building, when it rained outside, we would have to carry an umbrella because there would be so many leaks coming from the ceiling.
And there was no A/C. It got so hot under the lights, you could see the sweat dripping off our faces. That's when I discovered Ban roll-on deodorant stops face sweat.
CRYSTAL: Once the control room caught on fire while we were doing a live show. We turned the cameras around and showed it.
What's this show about?
HOHAUSER: How would I describe The Vole Show? Desperation. We started trying to do skits. We had a blackboard in the studio, so we'd draw backdrops, and that would be our set. We would fool our way through half an hour. I like puppets, so of course I had puppets. I would supplement the call-ins with puppets dancing to some song we had no right to use. I like little wind-up toys that you put on a model set, and I liked it when strange things would come out of the blue. Usually I just went there and turned the cameras on and said, "What's this show about?" I'll know when it's over.
CRYSTAL: If I Can't Dance, You Can Keep Your Revolution was an hour of talk, telephone, and technical failure. The purpose was to present an hour of anti-authoritarian politics, music, humor, and we did. We wanted to be the "real" Tonight Show—when you sat on my show and smoked a joint with me, there was a certain truth factor there that wasn't evident on commercial television. The hour went by whether you did a good show or not, because it was live. And we all got to dance at the end.
We had Debbie Harry, Tiny Tim, Philip Glass, Judith Malina, even César Chávez, but we weren't trying to have famous people; we were just trying to have people who were anti-authoritarian, people who were rebels. Tuli Kupferberg, one of the Fugs, was a regular. He came on every week, and I was so lucky to have him. It was a good core group of people based on my friendships from the '60s. I guess one of my favorite guests was Abbie Hoffman. He'd been underground, and one of the first things he did when he came "above ground" was come on my show. I was very proud of that.
YAPP: Working at Metro Access, I became friends with Nick Yanni, host of Tomorrow's Television Tonight. Yanni had been the TV critic for the New York Post, and Katie Kelly was a TV critic on the local evening news. They decided to do this access show in 1978, and when it first started it was really just to talk about television, but they realized it could be much more: theater, movies. Why limit yourself? You're in New York. And the show took on a life of its own. You would see interviews with people who went on to be very successful and big stars. I started as correspondent on his show, covering rock 'n' roll gossip, comedians, and "what's hot and what's not" in New York.
We had around 19 people volunteering to do that show. It was a 90-minute live show. It was a real challenge to make it look seamless and professional. There were many tape clips and stills from plays and movies woven in. There were cabaret singers performing with John Wallowitch [host of another cable access show, John's Cabaret] at the piano, the audience all was invited to come at 11:15, and they sat there and watched until the show was over.
HOHAUSER: Tomorrow's Television Tonight was a pretty tough job. It was probably the most tightly programmed and sophisticated live show ever on public access. It rivaled anything that was going on broadcast television at the time, except we were in this tiny little studio with black-and-white cameras that barely matched each other and a crew that did hard work but frequently got overwhelmed.
Guests came on for five-minute, maybe 10-minute segments. Then a cabaret piece, then a movie review segment that lasts three minutes—it was an hour and a half of short segments that we had to keep switching. The facility was cramped, 30 feet by 40 feet maybe. We had people running in and out putting microphones on. Nobody else was trying that at all. He was hoping that one day Channel 5 or some local broadcast station would look at the show and say, "Hey, this is great. We want you on our channel." But that never happened.
LEWIS: I was about 25 when we started doing The Scott & Gary Show. Our first episode was in 1983, featuring the Ben Vaughn Combo. We shot it in black-and-white because it saved us $10. The cameras were so old that if someone moved too fast it caused a blur. Because of Ben's rockabilly-style music and the look of the show, some people thought it was some rerun from the '50s. I took that as a compliment.
WINTER: Scott and I grew up on the same block in Brooklyn. In high school we started hanging out and going to Andy Warhol films and comic book conventions. After college we started doing Scott & Gary. As producer, I sat at my day job and made calls all day, trying to round up technical support and figure out how to pay for the studio time, which was about $135 for the half-hour. Scott handled the bands.
We had no idea what would happen when the camera started rolling. When Paul Leary [of the Butthole Surfers] started to get out of hand during the interview segment, it was really scary. I told my studio crew to get ready—we might have to restrain this nut. Fortunately we didn't. We had Gibby [Haynes]'s dog in the studio, so at least we had collateral.
Cable and Soho
PERICH: On Anton Perich Presents, I took the soap opera format literally, except there was no soap, only dirt. It was always a simple and primitive story, minimal and contemporary. There was often topless woman, gay guy, straight guy, straight woman, a lesbian, a father, a daughter, a total stranger. I was making these movies with my friends. They were mostly veterans of Warhol's films, great talents, trained in improvisation: Taylor Mead, Candy Darling, Tinkerbelle, Cyrinda Foxe, Susan Blond, Danny Fields, Wayne County, Sami Melange, Darsea DeWilde. I always had a little primitive story with a twist that I would convey to the actors moments before shooting. They would act it out immediately, absolutely exaggerating every aspect of it. Not really playing anybody but themselves. Narcissism was a key drive here, narcissism and weekly feedback from the cable audience.
ARMSTRONG: I coined the term "Vanity Video" to describe public access. New York magazine did a piece about it [on August 6, 1979]. There were these faded film stars who would come in, so glamorous, with a faint waft of perfume. We couldn't get enough of it.
DAVIDOVICH: People in public access are either very courageous or have egos bigger than a house. It's a pioneer spirit.
PAUL TSCHINKEL: Anton Perich gave me the idea to do my shows every week on cable, to be seen in homes rather than waiting a whole year to do one show at a gallery. I started doing cable in 1974. I was a minimalist painter and sculptor, tinkering with film. The format on the show was conceptual, collage and assemblage. Once I set up my camera on a tripod in Times Square and panned the street for the full show. Because I taped the show weekly, it was a lot of work. I didn't make any money from the stupid program, but I had the urge to do it, like an artist has the urge to pick up a paintbrush.
DAVIDOVICH: In Soho, there was a movement against the gatekeepers of culture going on—the galleries, museums, and collectors. Artists were trying to do work outside the gallery system, ephemeral works. In 1976 a group of artists and arts organizations formed a nonprofit called Cable Soho. It included Anthology Film Archives, the Kitchen, Franklin Furnace, Global Village and others. We wanted to create a television station for arts programming. Between all the different organizations, there was enough to fill a channel. The idea was to get a mobile production unit, in a truck that could go around to the different art spaces in Soho and cablecast live events to the rest of the city.
Also in 1976, MCTV realized that there was this new community with many potential customers down in the East Village, Soho, Tribeca, and Battery Park, so they brought cable south of 14th Street. But the cable company wasn't going to pay for the mobile unit, and we tried to raise the funds but couldn't.
So I said, "Okay, we can still tape our own programs and put them on cable." There was a heated debate about this. One group of people left the organization because they said the only reason to do cable was to do live broadcasts of the programming that was already going on. They thought new cable programming wasn't a viable idea because it would be in direct competition with the Kitchen and the other venues.
But my group saw cable as a way to intervene with television. To go inside the TV and do something directed at people at home. And develop our own audience. So we stayed. To represent our new direction, we changed the name from Cable Soho to the Artists' Television Network. I became the first president and executive producer, and we started a weekly program called Soho Television Presents in 1977. This was not on public access, but on Channel 10, MCTV's own channel. We rented tapes from individual artists and also produced original shows.
PERICH: Television was far removed from the downtown art scene. Many American artists in the '70s were busy with their aesthetic and bourgeois issues. Commercial galleries fabricated something called a "video artist" for themselves and the consumers: a safe package for a safe art world. I never cared about showing my video works in the galleries. Nobody understood public access. To do it, you had to be a pioneer, a revolutionary. I realized then that it was something powerful, like YouTube today. I guess people generally thought that it was worthless, because it was free.
DAVIDOVICH: There were a lot of video artists around, but very few of them showed their work on public access. It was too raw, seemed too amateur because it was so low-tech. The major arts foundations were directing funds to programs for public broadcasting, like the TV Lab on Channel 13. That's where the video artists wanted to be, not public access. Access had no art world context whatsoever. To do a show you had to be self-confident enough, or crazy enough, to make a fool of yourself.
TSCHINKEL: I started taping music shows around 1979. One of my first was the Plasmatics. I recorded it on half-inch open-reel, in color—lugged that huge machine into CBGBs. I'd speak to a club owner and ask to put a band on cable. It was pretty much laissez-faire. I have a good ear for sound, so I'd just put the mic into the place where it sounded the best. Sometimes it worked, sometimes not. Like, with the Dead Boys, who cares about the sound? I did the Contortions in '79. The sound was fantastic, natural. You could hear not only the music but the clinking of glasses. Inner-Tube was the first weekly underground punk rock/new wave show on cable. Then one day I was taping Nina Hagen, and I see a big crew come in. "What are you doing here?" I said. "We're going to start something called MTV." I guess I flubbed it.
DAVIDOVICH: We knew Soho TV wasn't exploiting the full potential of cable because it was all taped performances and showcases. We wanted to do a show live, something that would bring all kinds of short pieces together and be entertaining. "The variety show of the avant-garde." That was the concept behind The Live! Show, which I hosted and produced from 1978 to 1984.
HOHAUSER: There was something very energetic going on in the early '80s that wasn't happening in the '70s and certainly was not happening so much anymore in the '90s. It was centered around Metro Access. The live programming brought out a lot of energy, and the crazy call-in shows appealed to a certain sort of viewer. There were people who really based their whole lives—sounds terrible now—who really based their daily viewing habits around the shows they could call and interact with.
CRYSTAL: People said I was very good with the phone calls, even though at the beginning that was just filler, between this guest and the next guest. It ended up being its own segment. I had a regular group of people that would call in, and one was my Hair Fan. I had a guy who loved my hair. And he would call every week and say, "Your hair looks great!" And I would say, "Thank you!" and take the next call. You just don't get that on regular TV.
The calls were unscreened for the most part. We had a three-second delay on the phones, but we didn't care anyway if somebody swore or cursed. One of the things that became very apparent about the callers was that when the callers were abusive or nasty, it was a reflection on them, not on the show. There was a group of about a dozen kids who would call and harass every single host who did a live show. It was like they were graffiti artists but they were talking.
HOHAUSER: In some way, public access made today's off-the-cuff reality shows acceptable.
The callers would complain, "Well, why aren't you doing anything?" And I'm like, "That's what I'm doing. Basically nothing. On your TV. And you're calling me up to complain. So something did happen here."
Maybe I'm trying to excuse my lack of preparation, but I was trying to deconstruct television. That was the concept I was going at when I was doing the live show: I'm here. It's a normal part of the day. We're not putting on a show, and I clearly wasn't putting makeup on. My skin was breaking out all over the place—that's the show. You turn it on, you don't have to watch it. You can get mad. It's nothing. It's television.
YAPP: Unfortunately, around 1988 it became hard to maintain that caliber of guests because the commercial cable networks started taking off. Suddenly there were outlets with big production budgets going after these guests, and a program on public access couldn't compete.
HOHAUSER: In the 1990s, the whole media environment changed. For one thing, everyone got programmable cable boxes. Before, cable boxes just had dials and no remote control. If you wanted to get to HBO or USA, you had to turn past C and D. For a second or two, you'd see public access. Maybe you'd stop and say, "Oh, what's happening?" Very few people watched it for any other reason than that. The public access audience was an accidental audience.
Today there are 700 channels, and you sit in your seat with a remote. You have more reason to skip around, so you lose that sense of, "Wow! Look at this gem that I found. It's cheap. It's wacked-out. But boy, this is better than watching American Idol. The talent is better!" There's no way to do that. And for the most part there is no live programming on public access anymore, so you didn't get that interaction with the audience over the phone.
DAVIDOVICH: People spend more time changing channels than they spend watching TV. Ninety-nine percent of commercial TV is not interesting, and roughly the same percentage is true for public access. So you work with the remote.
HOHAUSER: Who watches cable TV now? Older people. The young people who are going to provide a lot of the energy and the audience for new things are on the Internet, finding stuff through links.
DAVIDOVICH: YouTube is public access gone ballistic. You never see videos of babies crying or animals doing tricks on public access. With access, even if you don't have a script, you have to spend half an hour in front of the camera. If you're taking live calls, you're getting insulted the whole time.
HOHAUSER: YouTube is public access unleashed. For better or worse. On public access, you had to get your act together to fill at least half an hour. On YouTube, the short format is king. People put together wonderful stuff. It's easier than public access. You don't even have to take the bus across town to hand in a tape. You can upload whatever insanity you want, for free, and it's potentially all over the world. There are 100 million clips up there that have 20 hits. Then there's a million clips that got more than a thousand hits, then there's the lucky few, like the hamster eating a carrot, that get 10 million hits. Or the cat that plays the piano. In one way it's incredible because you're all over the world, and in another way there's too much anarchy, too much stuff. You're more buried than you would be if you had a public access show.
DAVIDOVICH: I think in the context of the art world, there is a connection between public access and YouTube. We were artists trying to get around the gatekeepers of culture and the art market and by putting our work out there for public consumption for free. Now a lot of people work that way. The role of the artist is being redefined by the Internet, and the art market is killing itself.
LEWIS: I think public access laid the groundwork for YouTube. People who grew up watching public access have a different visual acceptance level, an expanded media vocabulary. It doesn't matter if the shots were not perfect or in focus. Subjects were all over the place. Shows were created by people who looked like you just saw them on the subway. YouTube has inspired people to create, to grab a camera, so it is the natural extension of public access, except now you can show your work almost instantly and reach millions. The viewer decides if it's worthwhile or not. But I think we can all do without the nasty anonymous comments that get posted. If you don't like it, create your own.
CRYSTAL: A lot of people nowadays were never exposed to public access, and they come across my YouTube channel. Let's say they are a fan of Debbie Harry. They google her and come up with my show. They have no idea what they're looking at, and they leave these rude comments all over the page, because it's not up to their standards in terms of quality. They don't realize that we're just a couple of pals sitting around talking. What they're getting is insight into 20 minutes of Debbie and Chris Stein. It's a wonderful rare moment in life. It's not my job to be her biographer. I'm not Katie Couric, and I wasn't trying to be. I was just trying to be me, Coca Crystal, TV Star, having a good time and dancing at the end of the show.
DAVIDOVICH: For some reason, a stigma persists with public access. The stigma says that public access is for weirdos, crazies, porn things, silly things. The connotation is that it's the worst thing you can do. The mainstream cultural elite never promoted it, and nobody ever wrote about its significance. In the early days, major museums thought public access was a dirty word, and they still do. The majority of people don't know what public access is, and those who do, the cultural elite, don't want to get involved because it's considered philistine.
YAPP: I was surprised more people didn't make the transition to mainstream television, but let's put it this way. I'd been considered "the normal person" at Metro Access. When I went to work at CNN I was considered "the oddball." It was very hard to be taken seriously because of my background in public access, and it was a barrier that took time and serious hard work to overcome.
CRYSTAL: Very few people went from public access to broadcasting fame of any kind. There were some people who went into public access thinking that they would break into mainstream television, and they were disappointed. We went into it with the plan that we just wanted to do it. And as a result, our expectations were met. We had an amazing array of people who were able to express themselves in a way that they wouldn't have been able to in any other venue.
HOHAUSER: There's a degree of humility in the whole thing, like an artist who has never sold a painting but keeps doing it, or a person who practices music his whole life but doesn't perform. They're doing it because they enjoy it.
Public access in the '80s was like a weird alternate world of television that occurred. It's wonderful that it's being remembered now. When you look back on some of the stuff that has been done, people go, "Oh. I missed that. I wish it would happen again."
RELATED CALENDAR ENTRYFebruary 11–20, 2011 TV Party: A Panorama of Public Access Television in New York City
January 15–February 25, 2011 Celebrating the Moving Image
KEYWORDStelevision | technology | New York | Jaime Davidovich | Coca Crystal | public access cable television | Jaime Davidovich
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Leah Churner is a film/video archivist and curator. She curated the series "Hollywood Musicals of the 1970s and 1980s" at Anthology Film Archives.More articles by Leah Churner