“Cable 8 Studio invites you to participate directly in the production of local programs. If you would like your own TV show, call Don Bland 728-2466” — Barrie, Ont.
One of the worst feelings I know is the hot fury which burns through me every time I am totally insulted by a television show. It is the same blind impotence that causes little men in cartoons to demolish their TV sets with axes; it is the reason thousands of people phone the network switchboards every night to shout about the filthy-porno-pinko-homo-commie-rotten shows. The CBC phone log reads like a urinal wall — nice people rendered obscene by television.
All this, it seems, is changing. We are now told: if you don’t like what you see on television, make your own program.
Do-it-yourself television has quietly arrived, the result of two technological innovations and some government interference. A portable television camera has been invented which is as easy to use as a movie camera and not that much more expensive. It uses erasable videotapes and comes with its own playback equipment so TV freaks can regale their friends with “home television.” Cable TV is bringing improved reception and a wide range of channels to most urban centres. Cable companies have been making so much money charging subscribers five dollars a month (and up) for a lot of free American shows that the CRTC has forced them to turn over one channel to local Canadian broadcasting. Home television, shown via cable, becomes community television.
Community television is being hailed as a broadcasting revolution and the salvation of western democracy. So far, it has failed to live up to its notices.
The most ambitious experiment has taken place in Winnipeg. Last summer, several hundred people were given rudimentary training in the use of portable TV cameras by the University of Winnipeg’s Institute of Urban Studies. Suburban housewives ran around videotaping interviews with people about youth problems and French in schools; one group taped 15 hours of a street festival. Out of this came an informal citizens’ committee, to which in September the provincial government gave $22,000 to produce broadcasts about the municipal election. The program ran three hours a night on cable channel 9 from September 15 to October 15. It was all done by amateurs, with a little help from their friends.
The program was, to say the least, extraordinary. All 150-odd candidates appeared, two and three at a time, sitting in a row in a dim studio, confronting an interviewer too amazed to ask questions. Some mumbled statements from bits of paper, showing us their bald spots; others lapsed into incoherence or total silence. One person read a statement in
Italian for 25 minutes; someone else did the same in Ukrainian. Man-in-the-street interviews were Groucho Marx things full of titters, nonsense and shouted directions from the producer. If you could stand the boredom it was vintage 1954 CBC. The people who produced it are apologetic about it, promising to do better next time. This would be a mistake. In one evening of watching, I learned more about local politicians than I had in a lifetime of watching CBC. Without a slick interviewer to help them along, they stumbled, lied and pontificated; most exposed themselves as fools and opportunists. The programming became hilarious satire not only of the politicians but of television itself.
Community television obviously isn’t going to be worth anything unless it is radical and controversial enough to make people choose it over Carol Burnett or Tuesday Night. When it is that radical, it is dangerous enough to make both government and the cable companies wary of supporting it. The provincial NDP government has not come forth with any more funds for the Winnipeg group. Cable companies across Canada provide only the cheapest studio facilities; many get around the CRTC regulations by filling the time with Kinsmen television bingo, baton twirling, local news, canned features and interviews with visiting firemen.
Everyone is terrified by the power of wide-open television. Nobody wants it to fall into the “wrong hands,” such as, for instance, the FLQ. Who is going to be in control?
So far, the cable companies are. They can block, delay or cancel any program they choose and frequently do so. Citizens’ committees are not necessarily the answer committees can be manipulated by professional organizers. Anyone with a threatening point of view can be labeled a kook and kept off the tube. Democratizing television by opening it up to a lot more conventional people simply produces a lot more conventional television — a poor man’s CBC. In Barrie, for instance, a marathon fivehour televised talk session and phone-in about a youth hostel involved everybody in town except the hairy hitchhikers who were to use it. Community television has been invaded by people who want to use it as a tool in social reform or community organizing. To them its value lies in the power, information and insight it can give to otherwise apathetic and alienated people who, for the first time, can see things from their own point of view. Everyone can be a TV star and the man with the camera is superman. The process of making the program is important; the end result is not. This kind of broadcasting appeals to a tiny audience and belongs on a closed-circuit system.
The community channel should be run by an independent corporation with adequate money, technical help and protection against political and moral censorship. Hours of cheap, interesting broadcasting could be done immediately — sessions of the legislature, city council meetings, magistrate’s court, assize court trials, public events — and they could be supplemented with editorials and film essays by the general public.
All the talk about the “cable revolution” scares the cable companies but don’t let it fool you. As a radical friend of mine says: “Television will keep people so busy making programs they’ll forget about making the revolution.” ■
Heather Robertson is a Winnipeg free-lance writer and broadcaster
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.