For those who can’t stomach the output of AOL Time Warner, Disney, Fox or Viacom, cable access channels 73 and 74 offer a rustic alternative.
We live in the best of times for that most modern of sports, channel surfing. While the athletes who pioneered this discipline had but a handful of networks to switch between, today’s remote-control jockeys face a bewildering, ever-expanding number of choices that deliver wildly varied flavors, languages and quality right into your home.
While flipping through the channels, you may have observed the skill that Telemundo employs in sneaking tight-sweatered, well-endowed blondes into every one of its programs, from newscasts to kiddie shows. You’ve marveled at those slicksters on the Home Shopping Network, who somehow manage to say “genuine faux” with a straight face.
But nothing catches the eye or stands out quite like the rough-hewn shows on cable-access television.
These cable-access channels, which feature locally produced programs by non-television professionals, came into existence when cable companies needed to get permission to dig trenches and bury cables in the municipalities in which they were setting up to do business. The companies agreed to forfeit a portion of their profits as a franchise fee; the figure in Sacramento amounts to around 5 percent. Most cities have kicked in a share of this money, as grants, to fund these local access channels.
In Sacramento, you can find them on channels 73 and 74, both of which transmit a remarkable array of programming—from backyard wrestling bouts to high-school football games, from local church services to the Naked Preacher Lady.
At the helm of Sacramento Cable Access is executive director Ron Cooper, who apparently loves his job. He smiles broadly as he excitedly describes the inner working of Access Sacramento. “We have about 650 active producers,” he says, “and on a weekly basis, we see about 150. Many of the programs are produced here at our studio with the equipment we provide. There are other people who bring us programs that they produce on their own with their own equipment.”
Cooper’s pride stems from his firm belief that Access Sacramento, which broadcasts from its studio at the community center inside the old Coloma School at 4623 T St., fills a vital role in the community. “We give voice to your thoughts, drama and opinions and events,” he says. “We do that by training you with the help of the grants we receive.”
Cooper and Access Sacramento are also expanding the reach of local producers by showcasing them on the big screen. They are now the organizers of the Sacramento Festival of Cinema at the Crest Theatre, which includes a segment titled A Place Called Sacramento featuring locally produced short films that include Sacramento as setting and/or subject.
Cooper believes that television programming is best left out of the hands of professionals. “Every one is invited to tell their own story, be it a religious belief, political opinion, sport or favorite hobby,” he says, spinning the role cable access plays as some kind of patriotic morale booster. “It’s a TV channel based on all that’s good about the United States of America, that allows for such a diverse community of voices to be heard using the latest technology—including TV, radio and the Internet.”
Cooper’s passion is contagious. Thus, the kids of the Tracy Wrestling Federation jumping up and down on one another, or the gore fans sharing their love of horror films on Deth’s Oogly Hed—and even the many amateur televangelists promising heaven and threatening hell—take on an almost poetic quality.
Not everyone feels this sense of delight with Access Sacramento’s programming, however.
“I would say we get a handful of calls, maybe a total of less than five per show,” says Cooper, who adds that the feedback includes praise as well as complaints. “When there are issues of language and adult content, we have asked for the producers to agree to be aired after 11:00 p.m. The challenge is to protect their rights as a speaker. The wide-ranging nature of the programs serves all kinds of different audiences. These are programs that are permitted by the Constitution. If you see something you don’t like or don’t agree with, you have the same chance to come down and make that statement. Part of the challenge of explaining what we do is that we sincerely invite everyone to participate.”
As real people like you and me—in fact, including you and me—are invited to present their own real visions, reality television in the truest sense of the term is achieved. These aren’t the prettiest stereotypes carefully chosen to be “real” for a season of sponsor-approved ratings bliss; these are real people showing us what they think we may want to see. It’s sometimes very strange, sometimes a little disturbing and often mind-numbingly boring, as reality is sometimes prone to be. It is occasionally sublime.
Cooper, of course, sees beauty and art in what everyday people choose to express when given the opportunity to “make TV.” From the backyard wrestlers who he feels bring the wonderful energy of youth, to the Bible-quoters who are, after all, doing their best out of concern for our personal salvation, Cooper views Michael Meyer’s comic character Wayne from the 1992 Penelope Spheeris-directed film Wayne’s World as a kind of hero. Through Wayne’s cable show and through his ability to showcase and spotlight his own vision of cool, he becomes “self-realized”—and in effect defines cool for himself.
It certainly sounds great. But, one has to wonder, is anyone watching?
Cooper explains that gathering accurate numbers on how many people are tuning in is difficult with all channels where cable is involved, and requires a certain amount of “guestimating.” There was a phone survey done a few years back. “We got some good feedback,” he says. “Over a month’s time our Game of the Week [prep football] program, for instance, gathered an audience of about 50,000 households, the Jazz Festival [reaches] 45,000 households. We had other talk shows, all in the range of 5,000.
“Here’s an opportunity to address the whole community,” he adds. “And it does get seen. We get sampled.”
So why do the individual show producers do what they do? Those hoping to save us from eternal damnation have an obvious motivation. But many of the others, when asked, answer simply: “Because it’s fun.”
Darin Wood, who also sings and plays guitar in the hard-rock band Soul Motor and draws his own horror comics, produces Deth’s Oogly Hed, which has run sporadically since 1995, with his wife and fellow horror and gore fan Christie Savage. “I wouldn’t mind doing something bigger, and I do always put my shows on my resumes when I apply for grants and stuff,” Wood offers. “Even if nothing comes of it, I have fun doing it. It’s one of the funnest things I’ve ever done. It’s cool to just make shit up and put it on TV and then you run into people and they’re like, ‘Hey—I saw you on TV.’ Everybody wants to be on TV.”
Wood’s strongest motivation for doing their show? “I was a fan and I got to interview Tura Satana and Bob Wilkins,” he enthuses. “And the video distributors sent me free stuff. I got to meet Gunnar Hansen [Leatherface in the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre] and Kane Hodder [Jason Voorhees in a few sequels of Friday the 13th]. Reggie Banister from Phantasm, he kept saying my name wrong, so we put that clip in hella times. Dick Warlock, lots of scream queens.”
When Wood lists the many perks of having his own program, he does indeed sound like a boy describing his Christmas bounty. And Wood didn’t have to be a good boy all year to earn these prizes, either.
The future looks bright for cable access as more people work with video cameras, and the gap between amateur and professional becomes increasingly narrow. The technology has been improving, too; digital video equipment has been added to the studio’s arsenal of tools available for loan. And with the rapid improvements in Internet film technology, the idea of local producers reaching the world becomes more real. But for now, you can enjoy the sights and sounds of your community on channels 73 and 74. Or, better yet, you can share your own unique vision with the world.
After all, everybody wants to be on TV.