What a Long, Strange Trip It's Been
Austin Community Television's First Quarter-Century
The Port-a-pak was a brand new piece of consumer gadgetry from Sony that put the "home" in "home video." Weighing around 25 to 30 pounds, it had a platform about the size of a laptop computer with two open reels on it (something akin to a reel-to-reel tape deck) that fit inside a fairly large over-the-shoulder carrying case. Out of the case came a wire that was attached to the camera, a bulky doodad that looked like a hybrid between a radar gun and the average video camera available on the market today.
Tolleson had an epiphany, and one that had nothing to do with free love or LSD, but did have an aura of tuning in and turning on. "It made me realize that television, for the first time, could actually get into the hands of the counterculture, of which I was a part," said Tolleson, now an attorney in Austin.
Prompted more by the possibilities of what this new technology offered than by a case of the London homesick blues, Tolleson returned to Austin and joined forces with media activists-politicos like Bill Narum. Narum, then an advertising suit in Houston who had recently quit his job (and would later be known for his artwork for ZZ Top), moved to Taylor to start a sort of video commune. Along with a group of UT students known as Austin Community Television, they launched what is now one of, if not the, premier access television facilities in the country.
Today, Austin Community Access Center operates three channels - 10, 11, 16. (The Austin Music Network and the channels that air city, county, AISD, and Austin Community College issues are PEG channels - Public, Educational, Government - under the city's aegis.) In its
25-year history, ACAC* has produced an estimated 500,000 hours of programming - more original programming than any other access station in the nation except New York City's. It is also the only access facility in the country to twice win the Community Communications Award from Alliance for Community Media (that's sort of the Heisman of access), taking the honor in both 1985 and 1996. Just like people move to Austin for the music and film scene or for tech jobs, our robust access facility has attracts talent and devotees.
In the late Sixties and early Seventies, the media was in the exclusive hands of what Tolleson labeled "the monied establishment." For television, there was ABC and there was NBC and there was CBS and there was no way for the average people who couldn't afford a million-dollar studio equipment to put together a production. At that time, if you wanted to be in or on TV you had to go to New York or L.A.
It seems peculiar now, when video cameras are as abundant as toothbrushes and things like the Golf Channel are available for those immune to boredom, but it wasn't that long ago that VHS didn't even exist as a format. Ever see home video from the Summer of Love? Of course not, because at the time, consumer video was a fledgling technology with an as-yet-undetermined market appeal and extremely limited market penetration. Cable television existed more as a way to get broadcast channels to rural areas where there were no broadcast stations than it did to bring suburbanites 24 hours of Martha Stewart.
"In those days, unless you were really into communication technology and information movement, you did not necessarily understand TV. How TV got made and how it got into your living room was a mystery to people. The Port-a-pak and hand-held video equipment went a long way toward demystifying that confusion. Consequently, it was instrumental in a huge power shift," Tolleson explains. The near-simultaneous arrival of both cable television and relatively lightweight, portable, and affordable video - the two cardinal components of access - made a few forward-thinking people realize the potential this combination held for ordinary citizens. And unlike network, cable television was available to those ordinary citizens.
When the FCC regulations were written for cable, there was a provision that required cable companies to make channels available for public access. It was roughly analogous to the FCC setting aside one end of the radio dial for non-commercial stations. Of course, at the time, cable companies were not running around giddily advertising this resource. Channels, to cable companies, mean money, so giving them away is akin to giving away dollars.
However, Narum and Tolleson and their compatriots were studying FCC regulations as they related to cable companies and were able to determine that because of the nature of the Austin system, Capital Cable fit the criteria for being required to offer a public access channel. At the same time, they realized that was a medium that would provide an opportunity for any and every group to express their own particular objectives and goals and inform people about what they were doing. And, as Tolleson recalls, "It was a time when there were so many groups springing up with projects that weren't exactly mainstream." And instead of today's epidemic indifference, in the social and political climate at the turn of the Seventies, there was still routine activism.
Various groups and individuals with alternative views and agendas, as well as people with niche apolitical interests that simply weren't represented anywhere, were continually trying to get access to the media. Access (and that's "access" as in "access television") turned out to be ideal. The transmitter was already paid for and provided, so with the existing infrastructure all a user had to do was plug in a VTR to a cable company's modulator, which would turn the signal into a channel 10 or a channel 13 whatever, and all of a sudden you were on the air.
It was that simple. Access television in Austin now required just two very obtainable things: a video playback unit and a commitment from the cable company, which locally was the Johnson family-owned Capital Cable.
By the fall of 1972, local access television was no longer just the pet project of a few aspiring social irritants. Kit Carson, now a quasi-famous name in film circles and then at the Texas Commission for the Arts, saw the potential power for community-based programming and got involved. Almost simultaneously Anita Benda, a professor at UT, was teaching a class that focused on cable television. As a spin-off from that class, some of the students put together a side group (the group known as Austin Community Television) that started discussing public access and exploring the feasibility of bringing it to Austin.
In November of 1972, this consortium of interested parties - the Arts Commission, the students, and the media-minded individuals such as Tolleson and Narum - started having meetings and gathering resources, of which there were few, from around the country. Resources were scarce because at the time there were only two cities with access television: New York City and Reading, Pennsylvania. With some inspiration from out-of-towner George Stoney, the documentary filmmaker (Eyes on the Prize) who is also "the father of access television," and some direction from the Alternate Media Center in New York, the information clearinghouse at which Stoney worked, local activists were able to get the process of getting a channel underway.
Stories conflict, but it didn't take long before channel space was granted. One of the participants claims that Capital Cable "grudgingly complied" with FCC regulations. According to Paul Smolen, one of the then-students involved, however, there was no resistance whatsoever on behalf of the cable company. Smolen recalls, "Basically, we asked - I don't know which one of us called - but we asked Don Thomas from Austin CableVision, which was at that time Capital Cable, to come to a meeting at the University [of Texas] to discuss access. He got up on the stage and said, `Okay, we'll give you this many hours a day for this many hours a week.' And we all sort of sat back and said, `Oh my god, what are we going to do with that?' He called our bluff, so to speak, and we had to start to producing TV."
Regardless of the willingness with which Capital Cable gave up the channel space, by the late spring of 1973 ACTV had its first "test" broadcast. Tolleson, Narum, and Frank Wawak, who was the chief engineer for Capital Cable, took a deck with a reel-to-reel tape on which they had produced a program (Tolleson couldn't recall the content) up to Mount Larson because that's where the head-in for the cable system was located.
There were no cable lines or satellite dishes at any convenient, in-town location from which to relay a signal. Someone, namely Wawak, had to open this little shack at Mount Larson and literally wire the playback device directly in to the cable system; and it wasn't very sophisticated wiring. Jerry-rigged might be a more accurate description. There were a couple of wires coming out of the back of the playback deck and they were alligator-clipped to a couple of other wires in Capital Cable's hardware, then the tape was started and sent out over an empty channel. But it worked. It was just black-and-white video that didn't look that great relative to "broadcast quality" productions, but it worked and it was television made by average people.
On June 1 of 1973, Austin Community Television received its corporate charter, and Capital Cable agreed to provide them with airtime Monday through Friday from 7-10pm, then from 10:30pm to midnight. For years following, every hour of programming made it to the "air" in that same manner: You went up to Mount Larson, you set the deck on the ground or on the hood of the car, you wired it into the head-in, then waited while it played. Wawak quickly got tired of continually having to go up there to open up the brick shed so that ACTV producers could hook up to broadcast, so he soon built an external port into which the deck could be connected directly from the outside of the building. And until a lean-to was built to shelter the playback station, programming could be cut short by an otherwise harmless drizzle or any bit of inclement weather.
ACTV producers were resilient in their ingenuity, though. For instance, the first time they tried to produce a live music broadcast they had to technically overcome their own klutziness. The producers were wired in to cablecast live directly from Mount Larson. As the sun was going down, they got somebody with a guitar (Stuart Heady, a longtime ACTV activist, seems to think it was either Butch Hancock or Townes Van Zandt) to stand with the city in the background and play. Only someone tripped over the light stands, knocking them over and, worse, knocking them out. Rather than scrap the whole ordeal, the brains involved pulled up some cars, flipped on the high beams, and the show went on.
Productions often had to rely heavily on creative engineering because access had access to less than Spartan financial resources. ACTV's initial grant from the city was a whopping $600. Despite some funds here and there, ACTV never was actually on the city payroll, so to speak, although within a couple of years of inception, they had gotten a work order for around $10,000 from the city human resources department to produce some instructional tapes for them, and they used that money to buy some new equipment. Generally, ACTV limped by on whatever grants and funds they could get from whatever source they could get it - the Texas Arts Commission, the State Humanities Commission, wherever. From 1978 to 1980 the entire focus of the board of directors was all about one fundraising effort.
Contrast that with today, when ACAC has a budget this year of over $650,000 for its roughly 600 producers (and it's worth pointing out that that money comes not from city tax coffers but from Time Warner). ACAC's arrival at this point, however, is not a story of "The Little Access Outlet That Could." For its first decade in Austin, access was, in former ACTV board member Tom Geibink's words, "basically a cowboy group." Or as Heady put it: "Prior to the franchise of 1982, ACTV was an organization that was doing well to have a successful garage sale."
By the Eighties, national legislation said that cable companies had to have a franchise in the city that they operated, effectively giving cities the ability to regulate cable. It gave cities a funding mechanism because they could require a franchisee to pay fees to operate in their city and to support public and government access channels.
This was slightly problematic because cable companies were competing with each other to woo the city, and one of the few ways they could differentiate themselves from rivals was through access. As a result, many of the cable wannabes around the country were offering cities obscene amounts of money and equipment, offers that were later reneged because franchise incomes weren't warranting it. Access centers were regularly being set up, only to lose their money shortly thereafter. Because access television in Austin had an established history and some pretty telecom-savvy people associated with it and negotiating on its behalf, the city got a very realistic deal, which helped ensure its survival.
Geibink, whose tenure on the ACTV board coincided with the franchise negotiations between the city and CableVision (Capital Cable was bought out by Time Warner and renamed Austin CableVision), noted that in Austin "the money offered was felt to be within the bounds of what the cable company was earning, and the equipment was deemed to be reasonable. And pretty much CableVision adhered to it, screaming and hollering all the way, but they did pay up on their agreement. You can look at almost any city in the country and find that that's not the case."
Overnight ACTV grew up, going from a shoestring organization to one with $300,000 at its disposal. And in the intervening 15 years, ACTV-turned-ACAC has earned the status as one of the finest access facilities in the country.
ACTV's importance to the rest of the country is not hyperbole. Austin access producers, activists, and board members have gone on to executive directorship of access television in other cities and Austin access is the organization to which other cities have always looked to learn how to build their own. Tolleson explains, "Austin has emerged as a very important model for other cities because in the beginning we had to figure out everything: how to fund it, how to get it supported, how to work out the politics and the economics between the cable company and the city."
Today, common perception is that most people think of access as crap. It's "Oh god, no! Not more idiot teenagers with a call-in show," or "I don't care about your church or the Zendiks or Alex Jones and the Trilateral Commission," but a demographically definable survey endorsed by Time Warner Communications shows that 50,000 households watch access "occasionally or some of the time every week." Believe it or not, you people do watch access. Sure, it has a very high surf factor and very few couch pilots are going to watch the Mount Sinai marathon, but over time ACTV has been the source of some wildly creative programming: the Viennese Cowboy, The Pun Zone, Shut Up and Drink, Face Your Pets, Ask Livia Live... hell, self-effacing Dave Prewitt and CapZeyeZ probably outdraws network late-night programming for viewers.
Access has been used by every type of Austinite - the famous and infamous, the mundane and insane - and for every reason. Like moths to a porch light, there's not a single politician in this town who hasn't put his or her face on access as election day approached. Richard Linklater used ACTV equipment to film part of Slacker. Robert Rodriguez used ACTV. Actually, both of them used it. The Robert Rodriguez used access (and he speaks of it glowingly in his book Rebel Without a Crew), and a Robert Rodriguez who is not the Robert Rodriguez produced a long-running access show on conjunto music called Estamos en Tejas.
Anybody can be on TV and say and show what they want. That is the idea behind access, it is a mechanism that combines the First Amendment and the media. It's a very unmagical process. All you have to do is pay the fee for a producers license, take a few courses to learn how to use the equipment, and you can run opposite Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw, and Craig Kilborn.
Says Alex Jones, one of ACTV's more famous faces today, "I just think access is so damn important. Access is the best thing about Austin. If someone watching doesn't like what they see, wait a minute and it will be something completely different, or they can come down and get a show." That's the difference between Austin access and Austin weather - if you don't like access you can do something about it.