Intrigued by some independent films I saw on public TV, I started making short, little movies as a teen, using our family’s 8mm Bell & Howell camera. By high school, I passed off some of these films for major assignments, and earned a bit of a reputation for these mostly silly movies.
Then it was off to college to study filmmaking for real. Except the costs of film production proved so prohibitive, I focused instead on scriptwriting.
I did take one television production class, but that left me distinctly dissatisfied with the constraints of the studio, and the prognosis for working in TV. The suggested post-degree career path went something like this: work in a podunk station coiling cables and hanging lights for a few years to earn the right to run a stationary studio camera there on the weekend news for another couple of years, and maybe you’ll get lucky enough to move up to a slightly larger-sized small city where you can continue to “pay your dues” there for another 10 years or so.
There had to be a better way to make TV than this. At least I knew that was not how I intended to make TV. Books like
Guerrilla Television (1971) and Spaghetti City Video Manual (1973) showed that independent video was possible, and that sounded more like what I wanted to do.
About this time, the concept of public access television — allowing the public to use channel space on the cable line-up for local programming — started taking hold nation-wide. Originally offered as a local benefit, the FCC established the right of the public of public access TV programming.
Austin Community Television (ACTV), got Austin’s cable company to allow public access programming over the cable system in 1973. But the cable company offered no money, no equipment, just access to the head-end of the cable system’s feed. It would be still be a while before field production through ACTV would really blossom into a true access community.
Meanwhile, I graduated and travelled and discovered other cities with access programming, such as Aspen’s Grass Roots TV. I returned to Texas ready to set down roots for real and start making video. If I wanted this to become my profession, first it had to become my obsession.
So began my long love affair with ACTV. I started volunteering to work on access programs, including taping the city council meetings (an early source of external contract money for ACTV) or running camera for other producers.
In 1981, Austin signed a cable franchise agreement with ATC, a national cable service provider who had bought the homegrown Cable Capital Company (once partially owned by the LBJ family).
Suddenly, there was more money for equipment and ACTV moved into the back half of the Dougherty Arts Center, doing their best to retrofit the facility to accommodate make-shift studio space, several editing bays, secure equipment storage, classrooms and administrative offices.
ACTV became a physical nexus of incredible creativity in the 80’s. Every day and every night, video cameras and recorders went in and out the door and access programming, from church services to talk shows to political polemics to kids’ birthday parties, flourished on Channel 10 like never before. Everyone from musicians to politicians to artists to dancers to kids and parents came through the center creating or participating in community-based programming.
A creative community sprung up amongst ACTV producers. Producers routinely volunteered to help each other as a way to gain more experience. I crewed on several other folks’ shows, and other folks helped me with some of mine as well. Living just up the hill, I often found myself down there just checking on equipment or editing reservations or projects needing volunteers.
One early project of mine was taping the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar the first year after the Armadillo World Headquarters shut down, 1981. That would become ACTV’s slowest-moving series, with a single episode annually through the 80’s, featuring artists and musicians such as Marcia Ball, Gary P. Nunn, Christine Albert, Bobby Bridger and Uncle Walt’s Band.
I also recorded live performances by various musicians and a great comedy group, the Better Than TV Players. My personal favorites included original pieces like an adaptation of a Richard Brauitgan short story, The Betrayed Kingdom, and a comedy piece, So Ya Wanna Hit?
Then there was this little ditty that reached the finals in the Homegrown USA National Access Contest:
Somewhere along the way, I got elected as a producer representative to the ACTV Board of Directors. Before I knew what I was doing even as a board member, I accepted the nomination to become President of the Board. The next thing any of us knew, Austin CableVision submitted a franchise modification request to the city to severely cut access channel space and eliminate access funding, launching the “Cable War of ’87.”
But that’s another story — and a damned good one, to boot. Tell you that one later.
After months of high drama and great support from the access community, we prevailed with the unanimous rejection of the franchise modification request by the City Council. A compliance agreement worked out the details to finally fund and build an access center, complete with dedicated access studios and a substantial boost to the equipment fund.
Shortly after we won the Cable War of ’87, my involvement with ACTV began to wane. I won’t say the thrill was gone, but it definitely felt like time to move on. By the summer of ’88,, my term as Board President ended, and I left the board entirely not too long afterwards. My 1988 Armadillo Christmas Bazaar program was pretty much my last gasp as an access producer.
Cut to 2015:
Recently, a fellow named John Spottswoode Moore contacted me about a documentary he wants to make about ACTV and access producers from the 80s and 90s. Video never dies, it seems (though the tapes can deteriorate over time).
Talking with John about ACTV history, I helped fill in some gaps and pointed him to other producers fom way back then. I also gave him hours of my own ACTV programming to use. He’s working with dozens of other Austin access producers much more prolific than me as well, so he’s got tons of raw material to start working with.
I’ve talked about crowdfunding here on the back porch before, so you know the deal — this documentary will only get funded and made if he raises his goal of $16,000.
Time to ante up, folks. There’s a treasure trove of tales to be told from the heady days of ACTV, back when we put the Community in the middle of Austin Television — help share those stories.