Public-access television is a sometimes bizarre world where anyone with the time and inclination can appear on television. It’s where you find the rants of Colombus, Ohio, goth Damon Zex and the strange instructional videos of Let’s Paint TV, where Los Angeles host John Kilduff taught viewers how to paint and make blended drinks all while exercising on a treadmill. Then there’s my personal favorite What’s Your Problem?, the story of a man having a hard time eating a fish.

You’ll notice that all those videos are now available online.

In an age when it’s increasingly easy for amateur filmmakers, citizen journalists, and the general public to distribute videos online, is there any point in having a public-access cable channel? Some argue that public-access television has outlived its usefulness for this reason: Podcasting and online video have effectively eliminated the need to reserve television slots for public comment. In recent years, telecom companies have used this argument with great success to get out of having to contribute public-access funding. Lack of funding and public interest have caused many of these stations around the country to close up shop.

So if public-access dies, should we mourn it? Is there any reason to preserve it when it’s so easy to put the same material online? Advocates argue that online media can’t entirely take the place of the classic cable-access model, and that TV call-in shows offer a different kind of interactivity that shouldn’t go away.

What is Public-Access TV?

Public-access television came about with the rise of cable television in the late ’70s and early ’80s. In exchange for the rights to lay cable wires on public land, cable companies were required to donate a portion of their revenue to provide facilities and airtime to allow public comment. (Such agreements are negotiated on a city-by-city basis). The idea was to give voice to ordinary citizens who otherwise wouldn’t have access to any media outlets. In 1984, the Cable Franchise Policy and Communications Act prohibited cable operators from exercising any editorial control over public-access channels.

Thus public-access TV mostly became famous for its eccentric personalities and bizarre shows. (A few break-out stars even got their start on public access, like comedian Tom Green and horror hostess Elvira.) But it’s also been a venue for serious political and philosophical discussion, a place to find the recorded minutes of your local town hall meeting or school board discussion, as well as a springboard for citizen journalism. In the 1990s, Lisa Hendrick videotaped city council meetings in Marine City, Mich., to expose inappropriate behavior by elected officials. And many public-access stations rebroadcast investigative pieces by Democracy Now, Free Speech TV and Deep Dish TV Network.

Not Everyone Has Computers

At the moment, the most obvious advantage public-access TV has over online video is simple access. It’s sometimes easy to forget that not everyone has access to a computer, but the 2008 biennial news consumption survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that 46 percent of Americans still get their news and entertainment primarily through television.

Tony Shawcross, executive director of Denver Open Media in Denver, and founder of Deproduction, won a grant from the Knight Foundation to create online tools for public-access TV stations (and blogs on Idea Lab about it). Shawcross told me that cable TV still predominates the media landscape.

“Cable television viewership is still orders of magnitude higher than online, and the discrepancy is even higher in low-income communities,” he said. “Nielsen has a recent report that estimates cable TV viewership at 25-times the prevalence of online media viewership. Low-income communities do not necessarily have cameras, computers and high-speed Internet. Those tools are not ubiquitous, and have low penetration in low-income communities.”

But this is only a temporary respite for public access. As technology becomes cheaper and more people become plugged in, this gap is slowly but surely narrowing. Even though experts estimate that it could be another 20 years before online video reaches the same audience numbers as cable TV, activists agree that public access will need to find another way to justify its existence.

Gathering Places

Part of the appeal of new media is that you no longer need a big crew or expensive equipment to record your message. When you can film yourself with a cameraphone and upload it to YouTube from the privacy of your own home, what’s the need for a public access center?

Jay Dedman

“That’s a good question,” said Jay Dedman of the videoblog site Ryan is Hungry, “And honestly, that’s what public access really needs to answer. It’s seen as out-of-date. But one of the key things about public access is that it isn’t really just access — it’s also education. YouTube and Google Video are commercial sites. They’ll host your videos, but they’re not going to teach you how to advocate for things. Public access is a place for people to meet and interact and to become a media-conscious person.”

Dedman worked at Manhattan’s public-access channel from 2001 to 2006, but eventually left because he felt that it was falling behind as new technology became more available. But before he left, he had become increasingly interested in video-blogging (or vlogging), which he saw as the next step. Dedman has worked to teach public-access producers how to harness the power of vlogging, including a stint at SFaccess in San Francisco.

Public engagement is at the heart of public access, and proponents see it as a place where a local community can gather to learn how to communicate and share ideas.

Dedman recognized that public access will need to adapt to the new online reality if it wants to continue fulfilling this role. There’s little point for a station that only offers classes in archaic technology, after all.

“Right now, when you go to a public-access center, it’s basically a TV station,” Dedman said. “It’s all about learning how to use broadcast equipment. The new vision of a public-access station would be something more like a computer center, where you could go to get access to the Internet, to learn how to use online video and audio equipment, a place for the community to get together and talk. The whole point of public access is to give people a way to speak. In the ’70s, cable TV was the best way to do that. Today, it’s only one way of many.”

Public Access TV Reluctant to Change

Currently, some public-access centers are reluctant to branch into new media out of fear that offering such services might breach their contract with cable companies. Dedman noted that cable providers are reinventing themselves as broadband providers and said that savvy public-access stations needed to renegotiate their contracts to “get a piece of whatever was going over the wires” — to ensure that cable companies wouldn’t be able to revoke funding for offering media services beyond TV.

Shawcross has been the forefront of change in public access. He pioneered a number of innovations to energize viewers about public access, making Denver Open Media channel a leader amongst public-access channels.

“Every show submitted gets posted online,” he said. “Viewers are encouraged to vote and comment via the website or using their cell phones. If you visit our site you’ll see that there’s a dynamic scroll and if viewers vote or comment, their feedback scrolls across the screen real-time (almost). The most unique thing about our model is that we don’t have a scheduling/programming department. The votes and metadata automatically determine the schedule based on a multi-layered algorithm with various rules and parameters. So it really puts the control in the viewers’ hands like never before.”

Shawcross also emphasized the local aspect of public access, where channels are unique to a city.

“Commercial media operations cater to national audiences, and it seems to be widely recognized today that there is an underserved need in the public for more local and hyper-local media,” he said. “Public-access stations not only provide a community resource designed to address local communications needs, but unlike the YouTubes of the world, provide a physical space where community members can meet, collaborate, and organize.”

TV Offers Different Interactivity

The idea of local public engagement goes beyond just giving the public a way to appear on TV: It’s also about giving the public a chance to talk back to TV. Interactivity is, of course, a huge part of online media, but public-access personalities agree that the responses on television have their own distinctive flavor.

Russell Glasser

Russell Glasser co-hosts Austin public access show, The Atheist Experience, a call-in discussion show that promotes positive atheism, and produces an associated podcast, The Non-Prophets. He’s used to getting challenging or hostile calls on the TV show, while the podcast attracts a more sympathetic audience that is interested in atheism to begin with.

“When you’re a call-in show, you get more of a cross-section of calls,” said Glasser, “I’m afraid that public access may become obsolete for lack of political support, but I don’t think it will ever be completely replaced by the Internet. I like the opportunity to be on TV, and there’s something to be said for this sort of ‘push’ medium, where people not looking specifically for something can still stumble upon it.”

Daniel Krawisz and Lorraine Denardis host another Austin public access series, the Libertarian-themed Fun with CGI. Denardis thought that most viewers found “Fun with CGI” by chance, an element removed from online searching.

“On the Internet, people have to seek you out,” she said. “They have to make more of an effort, and they usually do this alone. TV reaches people that are just bored and want something to watch, and it also reaches people that are watching in groups. They just want to be entertained… People with cable have so many channels, a big screen TV, and nothing to watch. There’s less competition.”

Search engines have improved at returning only the results that you want. But if you’re less likely to run across something unexpected, you’re less likely to accidentally find something that might startle you. In contrast, you rarely know what you’ll find when channel surfing — and that element of chance might make TV more likely to challenge your preconceived ideas.

Many shows are broadcast live and invite viewers to call in — and the responses can often be just as entertaining as the show itself.

Glasser and his co-host Matt Dillahunty have made extensive use of new media to help get the message out about their ideas, but, ultimately, it was the unique public-access callers that made the show popular.

“The Atheist Experience” first started receiving wider attention when fans started posting short clips of the show on YouTube and Google Video. Web surfers enjoyed watching the hosts spar with some of the show’s stranger callers — including one who described a procedure for catching a glimpse of a ghost and another who asked, “If energy comes from the sun, why doesn’t all life on earth perish as soon as the sun goes down at night?”

Daniel Krawisz

Krawisz of “Fun with CGI” noted that the public response the TV show received far surpassed that of its online counterpart.

“So far, all responses to the show have come from viewers who call in,” he said. “Often these people are drunk or stoned, but we have also had some enthusiastic Ron Paul supporters put in their two cents during the political shows. Lots of callers say obscene things, and I just say thanks and cut them off. One caller tried to hit on me and she asked for my phone number, but I told her to contact the show and I’d get in touch with her that way. I wasn’t giving out my number on the air!”

The Future of Public Access

For now, public-access TV still seems to have a place, but its future is far from certain. As more people switch their attention to online media, it’s likely that the appeal of appearing on TV will diminish. But public-access TV is about more than just letting people speak their minds, it’s also about teaching them how to speak their minds; that’s one thing that you can’t get by sitting at home alone, uploading to YouTube. For Shawcross, the only thing that could adequately replace public access would be something that provides both equipment and training — and makes sure that it’s available to everyone, regardless of income.

“If libraries were providing media training, Internet access…and access to production equipment, then I’d agree that perhaps public access would be irrelevant,” he said.

What do you think? Is public-access TV still important or is it a relic of a bygone era? How would it have to change in the future to stay relevant? And, if you’re a fan, what shows do you watch on public access?

Mike Rosen-Molina is a Northern California freelance reporter and an associate editor for MediaShift. A graduate of the University of California at Berkeley schools of journalism and law, he has worked as an editor for the Fairfield Daily Republic and as a managing editor for JURIST legal news services.