Austin on TV: The Bizarre Story of Cable Access
Web series and documentary highlight the wild heyday of Austin Public Access and its vibrant future
Everything changed for documentarian John Spottswood Moore when he learned about The Ol' Bitty Show. Originally from North Carolina but now resident in Austin, Moore was astonished hearing a pair of Austin-native co-workers reminisce that, in the Nineties, they would leave parties specifically to go home and turn on Austin Public Access. "When I was in North Carolina, public access was like church television," Moore explained. "I had no idea that you could actually do something inventive."
"Inventive" might be the kindest word to describe Ol' Bitty. A cursory glance at clips online reveals a show founded on the sole premise of some local weirdo dressing up as an old lady, putting on a hideously grating smoker's voice, and fielding vulgar phone calls live from loyal viewers and confused newcomers alike. Of course, this type of off-kilter, aberrant content was a calling card for the late-night drunken denizens of a city that took distinct pride in its weird identity. Not only that, the wild array of shows was early proof that there's an audience and culture for everything, decades before YouTube and social media widely popularized that idea. Channel 10 has been and remains the home for Austin Public since 1973, making it the country's longest continually running public access channel (though they now also operate on channels 11 and 16). Surviving tapes from the city's heyday now serve as historic documentation of the individuals that made up Austin in the latter period of the 20th century, whether they existed as an eccentric niche or were communities disregarded by mainstream outlets.
Moore's original plan was to put together a film focused on Bitty and its successor show, Clown Time. Yet his research quickly uncovered a much more far-reaching, enthusiastic community than he could have ever anticipated. He said, "It just kind of turned into this thing where I'd keep contacting people and no one would say 'No, I don't want to talk.' They would always say 'Yes, I do want to talk, and in fact here's a whole box of tapes. Can you digitize them for me?'" It grew to where people were actually getting in touch with Moore to send him material instead of the other way around, which is when he realized the true scope of his documentary. Now, six years after he launched his Kickstarter campaign, he expects to complete his grand history of Austin Public Access, When We Were Live, later this year.
During production, he's also been awarded an Austin Film Society Grant, as well as funding from the city of Austin. One requirement of that city grant is to stage a free event for the public, and in previous years Moore has held live screenings of old tapes, and even an exhibition in his own backyard of vintage televisions running themed compilations. Now, in the wake of COVID-19, he's repurposed those collections into a five-episode online series called Our Town on TV, now available through AFS.
The series serves as a testament to the heart of a city with an untold amount of strange, influential, and significant characters. They're the kind who make Austin what it was and is by fighting for noble causes or just broadcasting something they wanted the world to hear, no matter how bizarre. The first episode, "Famous Folks," sees an obligatory interview with Richard Linklater, as well as Sammy Hagar, Allen Ginsberg, James Brown, and more. Mainstay music programs during this period Raw Time and CapZeyeZ, both produced by local legend David Prewitt, provide an appearance from No Doubt and a live performance from Milla Jovovich (yes, that Milla Jovovich). The Show With No Name pops up with backstage and performance footage from a Corey Feldman concert (yes ... that Corey Feldman). And how could anyone overlook the clip of Alex Jones carving a jack-o'-lantern on Halloween while yelling about the Austin Police Department using infrared cameras on civilians?
Episodes 4 and 5 act as a two-parter for "The City That Rocks," and exclusively focus on the city's music scene, showcasing a plethora of live performances from the likes of Timbuk 3, Rusty Wier, Gary P. Nunn, and even the UT Jazz Ensemble circa the 1980s. Meanwhile, episodes 2 and 3 home in on the silenced communities that were able to televise their plights with "Pride on Prime Time" and "Cable for a Cause," respectively. The clips shared in these range from the exuberant Captain Condom using a cucumber to demonstrate how to properly prepare for safe sex, to local rallies in the wake of the Rodney King trial, and an extended harrowing account of police brutality against civilians during an Act Up/Queer Nation march protesting the Republican National Convention. It's these episodes that reveal the true catalyst for positive change that lies in public access by providing tools for the historically oppressed to broadcast their voices. This was a necessary aspect for Moore: "The idea that anybody could get a camera and move throughout a community and make their own television show is kind of revolutionary because it's like the power is no longer at the hands of those who have millions of dollars. It's at the hands of a community."
In today's hyperdigital, constantly broadcasting age, there's the question about what purpose public access still serves. The answer for Austin Public, as always, lies in accessibility and adaptability alike. Along with having access to training, peers, and professional equipment, current Station Manager Doug Gray explained, "When you go live on our channels, not only are you live on four cable companies, but you're also live on the AFS website, you're live on our Roku, Apple TV, and Amazon Fire apps. You can be going live on your own social media. You're pretty much everywhere at this point. So instead of it being one vs. the other, it's kind of everything now."
For Moore, it all comes back to recognizing those who took the steps to make their voices heard. "It's kind of to show that even when it was less convenient than it is right now, these are some pioneers that really said I'm not necessarily a broadcaster, but I have something that needs to be said," Moore said. "I think it's very, very important that everyday people, no matter what their walk of life, use the technology that's been given to them to speak about what is important to them."
Find all five episodes of Our Town on TV at www.afsathome.org
Interested in joining Austin Public? Visit www.austinfilm.org/austin-public for more info.