AUSTIN (KXAN) - In it's almost four decades in Austin, access television has seen an estimated 10,000 people come and go at its studio. Some 2,000 hours of their work has been preserved. Now, some of the most memorable of those moments are about to find their way into a new documentary film.
" Access This ," currently in production, will look back over the past forty years for the gems, ranging from the silly to the seductive to the super-serious, that poked and prodded the community at large.
Everyone likes to talk about Austin, 'Keep Austin Weird,'" said Linda Litowsky, executive director of channelAustin , the current iteration of access TV here. "We absolutely believe we are the Mother Ship; we are the home of that."
With programming ranging from campy romps to serious debate to how-to shows and hard edged news, access TV was born when cable came to Austin.
"We do have the oldest continually operating public access channel in the world, Channel 10. They went on the air in 1973 and it has always been on the air with public access," Litowsky said.
"But if we didn't have that, then we would be bombarded with commercialism and mainstream media. This is the one place that anyone can go and see things that they cannot find anywhere else."
For years, public access was funded from the proceeds of bills paid by cable customers. But a 2005 state law ended that practice and similar laws spread to other states around the country.
"Sixty access centers have shut down in California," Litowsky said. "We no longer receive subscriber fees as our operational funds. We've had a 30 percent cutback and we may not be around (in the future).
So channelAustin is producing the documentary film, in part for the fun of celebrating an important birthday. There is, though, much more at stake.
"This documentary is absolutely aimed at trying to survive," the director said. "The situation that we're in now is that we're celebrating our 40th birthday.
"In August, 1973, ACTV, Austin Community Television broadcast or cablecast from Mount Larson for the very first time for an extended period of time.
"And so we're celebrating that as our 40th birthday, but sadly, we may be looking at the demise of public access in Austin."
The good, the bad and the ugly
Some of the access offerings over the years would likely not be missed. Even Litowsky acknowledges that.
"Just like everyone else in the community," she said, "I do cringe sometimes at the technical level of some of the content that shows up on the air, but then again, it's every person's right to have a voice. It's every person's right to tell their story. And this is a place that allows everyone to do that.
"And some of the programming stinks, I mean, it does. And I try not to watch too much of it because I don't want people to ask me what I thought of their shows because I don't want to have to say.
"But from someone who has created a very high end cooking show to someone's gospel hour to someone talking about the Kabbalah or 'The Atheist Experience,' which has been on since 1979, almost continuously, starting with Madalyn Murray O'Hair, this is the venue for all of that.
"We have dance; we have culture; we have music. We are what Austin is. When people talk about what makes Austin uniquely Austin, channelAustin does that."
Perhaps most importantly, the access system created a commercial-free and censorship-free opportunity for individual citizens to speak their minds on television, a medium that would have otherwise been completely unavailable to them.
"Television was so far out of everyone's reach," Litowsky said, "that only people that worked in a professional television station could actually work to put things on the air. And it was very expensive to put things on the air."
So access obtained equipment for shooting, editing and presenting video programs, taught people how to use it and offered the medium through which they could put their creations in front of thousands of eyeballs.
"It's not only launched famous people's careers, like (filmmakers) Richard Linklater or Robert Rodriguez, or even (conservative commentator) Alex Jones, it's also made it possible for the everyday folks, anyone, from any socio-economic group, to have a voice, to tell their story, whether it's a church service that they want to put on the air or it's a cooking show or they want to just talk to their viewership, answer phone calls and get advice or just visit. That's what it's all about.'
Just how many people watch access, however, has never been accurately counted. But Litowsky offers anecdotal evidence.
"Alex Jones," she said, "has been on public access since the late-90s. In 2006, Lakeway, this nearby community, decided not carry public access any longer on their cable system. And the day that Alex did not show up on the air, we got 200 phone calls within thirty minutes of when his show should air."
Also popular is Marie Hejl, who started her own cooking show at the age of nine. Viewers
watched the girl grow up before their eyes. Now married, Marie Saba is still at it and her professionally produced program may be poised for broadcast on a major network.
Along the way, Marie tried to move beyond Austin audiences by posting on YouTube.
"She says, 'You know, I tried the YouTube way, but how can I compete against all these cute kitten videos and pandas being born?'" Litowsky recalled.
Unlike Internet distribution systems, programs airing on access don't get buried in hundreds of thousands of other productions and they are aimed at a consistent local audience that can become quite loyal.
"Even if people think it's archaic and old," Litowsky said, "and we think of 'Wayne's World,' making fun of two weird guys in their garage playing the guitar, what's wrong with that? That gives those people a voice, irregardless of what they're saying.
"And even though I don't agree with almost everything that's on the channels, I mean there's a few things I think are super cool, but other than that, I will fight to the death, I will fight forever to make sure that folks have the right to do that."
The freedom of speech
Sometimes, though, the limits of free speech on access got tested, like the show that featured two men engaging in a graphic sexual act in an effort to promote safe sex at the height of the AIDS epidemic.
The producers were charged with obscenity and making obscene material available to minors. They were convicted and sentenced to a year each in jail. Though the jail time was probated and they never had to spend time behind bars, the message had been sent. Producers were on notice and management came out with pages of new rules.
Through it all, though, access sometimes made important contributions to the community. Twice, when Austin police beat demonstrators at legal protest marches, video of the attacks were aired on access TV. Even local television news outlets, which had missed the events, were forced to use the access video and some of it wound up on national news programs.
And when the Ku Klux Klan produced a show for Austin Access, management allowed it to air, but then quickly produced other programs to counter the Klan's racist message.
"It was kind of a frightening time," said Litowsky, "because you really didn't want to put the Klan on the air. I mean, you didn't agree with them whether you were liberal or not liberal, period. I mean, you just didn't agree with their philosophical ways. But at the same time, how could you deny them?"
Access, over the years, has offered another unique opportunity to producers and viewers, alike.
The one thing that public access offers is interactivity, said Litowsky. "Most of the series, we have about 70 series and 40 of them are live every week. And most of them take live phone calls. So there's this interaction continuously, late night, that people have that opportunity to call in, to talk about whatever with somebody live and hear themselves on television. And that's something that's not really offered anywhere else.
Still, Litowsky worries about the years ahead. With video cameras and equipment coming down in price and with new web-based outlets appearing for distribution, the pressure is on. But the director still has an "ace-in-the-hole."
"It's still an outlet," she said, "not only for people to be able to come in and tell their stories, but to learn the technology.
"It is a place where anyone can come and learn technology, whether it's making a movie on your iPhone or using these little HD cameras that Hollywood uses for reality shows or editing in Final Cut or Avid, just like they do in Hollywood, that's what we're there for, as well.
"We see it as an academy or an institute for kids and for adults, for media literacy and media technology literacy."
And no aspect of the process is controlled by sponsorships.
"A corporate-financed network," Litowsky said, "doesn't have to put something on the air unless it's commercially viable. We are so non-commercial, period."
So now, a Kickstarter campaign is trying to raise $15,000 to help with the film. With a Friday afternoon deadline, Litowsky is hoping for the best. But she is determined to carry on.
"No matter what," she said, "we can never do away with this because once it's gone, it's gone forever."
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