I Want My CTV

"Camera number two, zoom in and give me your two shot.
There you go. Can you get the fruit basket and the sign too?
Great, I’ll take that. Ready camera number two. Take camera number
two." The two people I’d just trapped in the small black
and white box on top of my camera appeared in full color on the
television screens placed at either side of the stage. Unfortunately,
the perfection of my framing was quickly interrupted by what
seemed to be an on-screen earthquake. "What the fuck was
that?" screamed the confused director. A glance at the base
of my camera revealed that the sign-man ruffling through cue
cards ("psa" and "5 minutes" and "Smile!")
had delivered a blow to the base of my camera. It was my first
mistake of the day, astonishing when one considered that I’d
learned how to handle the mechanical beast less than 20 minutes
ago. Apparently, Citizens Television truly does believe in public
access: I’d entered a television studio for the first time in
my life, and three hours later I was a part of the show.

My interest in Citizens Television (CTV) stemmed from a news
blurb in the New Haven Advocate. The local public access station
had recently finished the search for a new executive director.
Instead of hiring the candidate with ample experience who was
anxious to return to New Haven, CTV’s board of directors had
picked a less-experienced candidate who was also the board’s
former president. The station was being sued by Ruben Abreu,
Jr., a former executive director who claimed that he was unfairly
pushed out of his job so that the same board president could
take over his position. While similar power plays from New Haven’s
unscrupulous public servants no longer shock me, the motivations
for this particular maneuver escaped me. Who in their right mind
would stage such a calculated takeover for what seemed to be
a humble position with an unimpressive salary at an unimportant
organization?
To get a better sense of what was happening at Citizens Television,
I called a friend. I knew Zannette Lewis as a program director
for the Regional Cultural Plan for Greater New Haven, where I
worked last summer. However, the astrological chart she’d done
for me, and her explanation of an eclipse’s significance for
our workplace, revealed another side of her personality. To many
area fans of the metaphysical, Zannette is known only as Z, the
host of a CTV show called "The 3rd Eye." I came to
CTV to watch a taping of her show, which occupied the important
slot opposite "Dawson’s Creek" in CTV ‘s lineup. What
did CTV hope could steal viewers from Joey, Pacey, and Dawson?
According to Z, her show is "a metaphysical talk show whose
purpose is to give the public information about the relationship
of energy and matter as it relates to their journey to higher
levels of existence." Z appears on Channel 27 discussing
topics ranging from tai chi and yoga to astrological charts to
Native American and Eastern divination. "[By watching the
show,] you’ll get an understanding of what you need to do to
be highly evolved as a person or spirit on the planet,"
claims Z, who is quick to argue that her show is not merely a
circus act. "Initially, they just wanted me to come on and
do readings, but I thought that the community needed to see people
who are on their path to the third eye. I wanted to do the show
at a higher level than that of a psychic fair."
I entered the world of public access out of curiosity. Z, on
the other hand, was recruited. "I was just finishing up
a project at the Peabody and I had an opportunity to go on TV
and talk about the relationship between the environment and culture.
CTV was losing its astrology show at the time and Ruben knew
that I had also found astrologers for the Peabody, so he asked
me to consider doing a show. They felt that this was an area
that the community needed info about, so they decided to ask
me." Z claims her show is needed because much of CTV’s lineup
consists of evangelical Christian programming. I had trouble
accepting the idea that the best counterpoint to the programming
of the irrational religious right was a "metaphysical talk
show."

As I wandered around the studio and listened to the small
bits of conversation that drifted my way, it became apparent
that not everyone there was motivated by Z’s desire for free
intellectual discourse. John, a fellow camera operator, was a
friend of the director with nothing else to do that day. The
sound recorder seemed concerned mainly with his own "fame,"
using the studio’s headset system to explain his plans to usurp
another show’s anchorship. Z’s guests mainly saw the show as
an opportunity to advertise their services. Ruben himself, unable
to talk about his own dismissal because of pending legal actions,
admits that many involved in public access lack the high ideals
of Z. Some, in fact, see the tiny sound stage as an arena for
power. "When they’re in charge of their TV show," Ruben
said, "they rule."
Public access television struggles to meet the standards set
by its commercial counterpart. The offices of CTV were filled
with cheap imitation and kitsch: fake plastic ferns, a portrait
of jazz not-so-great Maynard Ferguson. This aesthetic extended
to the set. The "ceiling" that would appear on TV consisted
of nothing more than a two-by-four. I had to help the crew move
a couch from CTV ‘s reception area onto the set, thinking as
I struggled to maintain my grip that Katie Couric and Matt Lauer
probably had permanent seating. "The 3rd Eye" was produced
by a team of unpaid volunteers and its director was also its
producer, its graphic designer, its art director, and its promotional-refrigerator-magnet
assembler.
Just two and a half hours after the taping was scheduled to begin,
everything was almost in place. However, a final problem needed
to be solved. "Has anyone seen the intern?" the director
asked in a harried voice. It seemed that the intern, who was
supposed to run camera number two during the taping, had left
the studio. And that left only one unoccupied person in the station:
myself. I was pulled into the studio, given a thorough introduction
to the camera-"This is the zoom. This is the focus. Don’t
flip this switch or the camera will fall to the ground and break
into a number of small pieces"-and handed a headset. The
taping began.
Running a camera was much easier than I expected. The camera
doesn’t move if you don’t want it to and the director was generally
easy to please, so I didn’t have much to worry about. This gave
me time to consider the profoundly metaphysical significance
of the production of which I was now a part. To Z, CTV and all
other forms of public access provide an opportunity for voices
that are lacking in the mainstream media. "This is Citizens
Television. Anyone who considers themselves a citizen of society
should be able to get involved and produce a show . . . . they
should have an alternative to everything that’s on the major
channels." Ruben shares this grandiose vision of public
access, believing that "The 3rd Eye" and other public
access shows pose a serious threat to the dominant forms of television
and the big media giants. "Public access is the only real
line that people have to freedom of expression, freedom of contact
with other people, freedom to utilize technology in a way that
doesn’t reflect a bottom line. It’s TV for the community by the
community. Public access is a common ground for everyone, regardless
of their ideas or beliefs. When a nation stops thinking critically
about its experience, you’re in trouble. If we don’t have a public
access outlet, the critical thinking is zero. Critical thinking
will make or break our country." Although Ruben, with 25
years of experience in public access, was an impassioned pitchman
for these ideas, I was not convinced.
Ironically, the success of public access is dependent on the
very entities that it condemns-the giant cable networks that
carry its signals. The station where Ruben now works as operations
manager, the Manhattan Neighborhood Network, is dependent for
its financial existence upon aol Time Warner, one of the country’s
largest and most dominant media giants. While this may pose problems
for a station’s credibility, it did allow me to understand one
of the pleasures of public access television: We were using the
tools and financial resources of the cable companies to create
something of which they would never dream.
I don’t believe that public access will change the world. Still,
I found something seductive in the rhetoric used by Z and Ruben.
The shows are created by volunteers and aired without concern
for market share or advertising revenue, unlike anything in modern
commercial television. The same individuality that creates programming
uninteresting to all but a select few also makes it unlike anything
found on the commercial channels.

Patrick Casey Pitts, a sophomore
in Berkeley College, is on the staff of
TNJ.

More Stories
The Right to Bargain