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The public's right to show

Local-access TV blooms despite uneven quality, uncertain audiences

Every Wednesday night, the Great Riki and Dan Ginnetty sit in front of television cameras, taking phone calls from wrestling fans and an occasional prankster who shouts random expletives.

For five years, they have produced "The Wrestling Scene," an unscripted call-in show on Plymouth Area Community Television. The Great Riki is played by Richard Goulart, the station's production and membership coordinator. Ginnetty drives from his New Hampshire home to cohost the weekly live discussion about professional wrestling.

The show "is guided by what our callers want to talk about," said Goulart, 40. "A lot of times we don't know until they bring stuff up. Sometimes it just gets crazy."

Goulart also hosts Toukon Retsuden, a weekend program that features Japanese professional wrestling highlights.

"Without public access, there would be no opportunity for anything like this," Goulart said. "It's free-speech television."

Cable subscribers across the country are treated to programs similar to Goulart's public access television. Public access stations in communities south of Boston broadcast an eclectic mix of offbeat shows, local government meetings, and a growing number of ethnic programs.

Whether the local cable shows have any impact may be one topic of discussion in May, when movers and shakers of community access television operations across New England gather in Falmouth to discuss the future of their industry.

Plymouth Area Community Television is cosponsoring the conference, which will address a range of issues: financial accountability, fund-raising, licensing, government telecommunications policies, working with youth, keeping up with the latest technology, and recruiting volunteers to produce shows.

About 200 members of the Alliance for Community Media, a national organization of community television stations, are expected to attend, said Debby Rogers, executive director of Falmouth Community Television and chairwoman of the conference.

Rogers says she hopes that public officials will join the discussions.

"We started out as community-access TV stations," Rogers said. "We've recognized that access to all forms of telecommunications is key. The tools change as time goes by, but the mission doesn't."

Community access television is still stereotyped as only having wacky, off-the-wall programming, said Nancy Richard, executive director of Plymouth Area Community Television.

"A lot of people don't realize what we offer," Richard said. "We're not doing Wayne's World."

The quality of community access television varies "from mediocre to not good at all," said Ron Leone, a communications professor at Stonehill College in Easton.

But therein lies the point of public access. Anyone can produce a show. You don't need wealth, commercial support, or an academic degree to broadcast content of your choice, whether it's about Japanese wrestling, the US Constitution, or tarot cards.

"Cable companies do get monopolies; they should give something back," Leone said.

Public access stations south of Boston include religious programming (Quincy Access TV's "Freddy K's Christian Action Fellowship"), New Age shows (Brockton's "Psychic Mind" and Marshfield's "Psychic Encyclopedia"), and one station has aired "The Duttons' Holiday Special," produced by a singing, tap-dancing family from Missouri.

But it is difficult to determine how many people are watching.

"We know how many people it reaches, but we have no real measure of who is watching," Goulart said.

Without ratings, producers of public access television must rely on direct feedback to gauge the size of their audiences. But they forge ahead, interviewing guests, answering phone calls, hauling cameras, and editing footage, all in hope that someone is tuning in.

Public access does have its share of success stories. Brini Maxwell, a drag queen reminiscent of Martha Stewart, had her home-decorating show on Manhattan public access picked up by the Style Channel.

"The Hippy Gourmet," hosted by a bearded chef who cooks up kebabs in Haight-Ashbury, has grown from San Francisco's local channel to running on two dozen PBS stations across the country.

"From the comments I hear in the community, it seems like people are watching," said Elizabeth Campbell, executive director of Quincy Access Television, which reaches 30,000 households that subscribe to Comcast Corp., the biggest cable provider in Massachusetts.

One of the longest-running shows on Quincy Access television is "Studio Plus," a program geared to the city's Asian-American population. It covers practical topics like registering to vote, applying for college financial aid, and buying car insurance.

Other public access channels south of Boston broadcast programs in different languages, and they continue to be "a good outlet for people who speak English as a second language," Leone said.

Brockton's public access channel's schedule is packed with ethnic programs, such as "Grecian Melodies," "The World of Temple Israel," and the "NAACP Forum."

Brockton Community Access also broadcasts programs in Spanish, Portuguese, Cape Verdean-Creole, and two shows in Haitian-Creole: a religious program called "Brillant Avenir" and another program titled "Tele-Lumiere," a cultural show that covers a range of topics and plays Haitian music videos.

Those shows have been on the air for years and have developed a loyal following, according to Mark Linde, general manager of Brockton Community Access, who says he gets phone calls if one of the shows does not run.

Many community television programs cross city and town borders. Marshfield resident Donna Lynn Hudgins started producing "Psychic Encyclopedia" at her town's public access station. For each episode, she interviews guests and discusses a range of topics: dream interpretation, astrology, dowsing, animal communication, labyrinths, astrology, numerology, and palmistry.

"Psychic Encyclopedia" now airs on public access channels in Cambridge, Cohasset, Hanover, Hingham, Kingston, Norwell, Pembroke, Plymouth, Scituate, and Weymouth.

Some smaller public access stations, like Carver Community Access Television, rely heavily on students to produce shows. Carver's station operates on a budget of $66,000, and reaches 3,000 households that get their cable from Adelphia Communications Corp.

"We're such a small station," said Dan Miot, executive director of Carver Community Access Television. "We get some feedback, but not a whole lot." Miot is the lone full-timer at the station, housed in the middle school. Students can use the studio for projects, and the high school produces a monthly news program.

"The education component is our strongest point, because we're located in the middle school," said Miot, 32. "It's pretty cool. The kids come in after school . . . and they get experience directing and using studio cameras."

Being a stone's throw from classrooms has its drawbacks. Miot feels that the studio is separated from the rest of the community, because it does not have its own entrance.

"Being inside a school can be intimidating," he said. "People can't just come in and out."

Miot also moonlights as a film critic on "Alan Smithee's Bag O Movies." He hosts and edits the program for different reasons: "Because it's fun, to keep up my skills so I can teach the producers about the equipment and to show the producers what they can do with the stuff."

He said he is concerned about cable company mergers and how those could affect public access funding.

"Funding is going to be a challenge," Miot said. "They seem less and less likely to give money to community access television. We have to find other sources of funding."

Under federal law, local officials can require cable operators to set aside channels for public, educational, or government use when negotiating a cable license. The studios, cameras, and staff are funded by the cable operator, such as Adelphia or Comcast. The cable company often passes those costs on to subscribers through a franchise fee, so subscribers are typically picking up the tab for community access television.

Local access fees vary, depending on a subscriber's choice of cable plan. In Kingston, viewers who subscribe to the Adelphia Classic plan pay $48.10 each month and about $1.48 in public, educational, and government access fees. In the neighboring town, Plymouth Cable Advisory Committee cochairwoman Barbara Mulvey-Welsh pays $1.62 per month in PEG fees. In turn, Adelphia funds Plymouth Area Community Television, the nonprofit that provides public access programming to Kingston and Plymouth. Ninety percent of PACTV's $400,000 annual budget comes from Adelphia. PACTV also charges a $20 membership fee to people who use the studio.

In addition to preparing for the May conference, Richard tries to keep PACTV programming interesting. In March, the studio will air a new season of its local newsmagazine show, and Goulart and Ginnetty will continue to produce "The Wrestling Scene."

"It's really a problem facing society now," Richard said. "It's getting harder to get information out there, information that isn't mainstream. We feel we fill a niche."

Leone says that public access television will only become obsolete when cable television does. Until then, it will remain a community resource for anyone willing to invest the time to learn how to use the equipment, he said.

"The common denominator for these groups is that they do not have to rely on ratings. They can have access time, put their message out there, for better or for worse."

The Alliance for Community Media Northeast Region Conference will be held May 12 and 13 at the Seacrest Resort and Conference Center in Falmouth. More information is available at its website, www.acm-ne.org.

Emily Sweeney can be reached at esweeney@globe.com.

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