It was an unusual picket line. About 20 people had arrived at the offices of the Chicago Access Corporation, CAC, to protest the showing of a cable talk show, Race and Reason, hosted by a rabid white supremacist named Thomas Metzger. Three members of a local group called the Committee for Labor Access entered the building and came out with one of CAC’s portable video cameras; they began interviewing participants in the protest, which by now had grown to more than 50 people.

Two months later, when CAC scheduled another cablecast of Race and Reason, there was another picket line, That same evening, CAC cablecast Virginia Keller’s compilation of interviews taped at the first protest. Most of the people questioned on Keller’s show attacked Race and Reason–and CAC for carrying it.

If that doesn’t seem unusual to you, imagine striking printers at the Tribune walking into the newsroom, borrowing a terminal, and writing an editorial lambasting management for unfair labor practices; imagine further that the following day, the Tribune runs this editorial right next to its own. Stranger things can happen on CAC; it’s a little-known city treasure, a place where any Chicago resident can become a TV performer, reporter, or producer. Sometimes it’s even fun to watch.

Everyone who subscribes to cable television in Chicago automatically receives CAC’s programming. Whether your check goes to Group W Cable or Chicago Cable TV, you get, at no extra charge: Channel 21, educational programming coordinated by the Board of Education; Channel 27, a sort of screen-text bulletin board of public announcements; Channel 42, an “interactive” service that runs short programs on such topics as astrology, jokes, and how to be an election judge in response to viewers’ telephone requests; and, most popular and visible of all (though not all that visible), Channel 19, the one that comes closest to “real” TV (sometimes not all that close). There are six CAC channels in all; Channel 36 is not yet in service, and Channel 51 is currently “on loan” to Group W.

But you don’t have to own a TV, much less watch it, to benefit from Chicago’s public-access system. Every citizen of Chicago, cable subscriber or not, has the right to make and show his or her programs using CAC’s facilities. The equipment, the tape, even the training are essentially free, paid for by the cable companies. This “public-access” arrangement, one of the best in the country, is Chicago’s consolation for having been one of the last cities in the U.S. to be wired for cable TV.

There are various theories explaining why it took Chicago so long to get cable. One has Mayor Daley objecting to the “dirtiness” of the franchising process in other cities, another has him reluctant to provide a free forum for his political opponents. Whatever the reason, Daley’s delays ultimately benefited the city, because by the early 1980s, when the City Council seemed to be on the verge of drafting cable ordinances, Chicagoans had learned much from the franchising experience of other cities, and technology–particularly communications satellites–had transformed cable TV from a means of getting a clear picture (which had been its reason for being invented in 1948, in the hills of Pennsylvania) into a medium of entirely unanticipated possibilities. Among the promises being bandied about when Chicago began considering its cable TV franchises were “security services, playcable, home banking, software access, subscriber polling, text retrieval, electronic messaging, meter reading . . . energy management” and something called “Involvision.”

Because media activists and politicians alike realized the potentials–and dangers–of cable, a commission was formed, with funding from the MacArthur Foundation, to advise the aldermen on what they should look for in a cable contract and how they should choose the franchisee. The executive director of the commission was former reform alderman and mayoral candidate William Singer; the members included Northwestern University professor Donald Haider and numerous other high-profile names from business and academia.

After a lengthy period of study including three months of public hearings (it was the “most thorough and extensive” cable inquiry in the country, according to the report), the commission presented its recommendations to Mayor Jane Byrne and Alderman Edward Vrdolyak, chairman of the City Council’s subcommittee on cable TV, in January 1982. Douglass W. Cassel Jr., an attorney for Business and Professional People for the Public Interest, who helped write the report, says that the City Council adopted “95 percent of the recommendations we made.” As a result, Chicago has five cable franchise areas, each of which can be run by a separate company; for the initial 15-year contract period, Group W has three areas and Chicago Cable TV two. There are also regulatory and enforcement structures–a city Cable Commission and an Office of Cable Communications–and an independent, not-for-profit public-access corporation, CAC, which is funded by the cable corporations to the tune of about $6 million over the initial 15 years. The cable study commission, well aware that a number of national corporations wanted to bid for the Chicago franchises–where a potential 500,000 households might be willing to pay a national average of about $275 per year for cable service–made funding a public-access system one of the prerequisites for even bidding on the Chicago contracts. The $6 million is much less than the commission initially envisioned, but the deal that Chicago finally made still compares quite favorably with public-access systems in other major cities. Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Houston, San Diego, San Francisco, Atlanta, and a number of others have but one or two public-access channels each, and they are controlled by the cable companies instead of being independent. Many of the above cities have little funding for training purposes and no public-access studio or no three-quarter-inch portable cameras. Only Boston, which served as a model for Chicago’s access system, has anything comparable.

For $75 (recently increased from $50), any Chicago resident can take a short course at CAC’s studio or at Chicago State University that will qualify him or her to operate a $6,000 three-quarter-inch camera equivalent to that used by network news teams. The cost of the course drops to $20 if you can pass a written proficiency test (don’t bother trying if you’ve just made a few videos with your half-inch camera–the two are as different as a car and a semitrailer), and it can drop to zero if you qualify for a CAC scholarship. Classes in studio production, tape editing, and other video skills are also available for similar fees.

Once certified in the appropriate skill, you can sign up to use the cameras, a state-of-the-art studio, or a $375,000 mobile studio van. You also gain the opportunity to cablecast a live or taped program for up to 90 minutes weekly to a potential audience in the hundreds of thousands. After the certification costs, the rest is free.

To understand just what is available, compare this to the cost of making a half-hour program for commercial broadcast using your own money. The Center for New Television, which gives video courses and actively promotes grass-roots video-making, charges members a rental fee of $200 a day (the membership costs $50 a year) for use of a three-quarter-inch camera and other necessary equipment. That’s for a noncommercial production; for a commercial company the fee would increase substantially.

Even if three-quarter-inch videotape were available at the drugstore, as is the case with the half-inch tape that most home video cameras use, it would cost almost $25 for a 20-minute cassette. CAC allows producers to check out two hours’ worth of blank cassettes to produce a half-hour nonstudio program.

To broadcast your program on commercial TV in Chicago is probably impossible; no program director will relinquish a half-hour slot on any part of his or her schedule “for any price, with the exception of political campaigns,” as one stated. Time is available for short commercial slots; though salespeople will not quote an exact rate except to advertisers, it’s clear that 30 seconds of VHF prime time in Chicago can cost from $1,000 to $13,000.

Given the options, it is not difficult to understand why more than 800 people have become certified by CAC in studio or portable production, according to Donna Williams, CAC’s director of public information and community affairs (and producer of Black Visionaries). The availability of video hardware and the acknowledged expertise of CAC’s staff are undoubtedly some of the reasons that Vincent Dolan, president of Group W Cable, said that he had not seen a “finer access facility” in 20 years in cable. Dolan’s remark appeared in an issue of CAC’s newsletter announcing that more than 400 original, Chicago-produced programs had been cablecast during Channel 19’s first year.

What are these producers creating? In May, Channel 19 viewers can watch The Sheridans of Chicago, a half-hour prime-time soap opera about “Chicago’s oldest, richest, and rottenest” family, which appears every other Tuesday at 9 PM. (A recent program listing reads, “Madge and Phillip meet in Jon Reich’s Lake View East art gallery where Phillip tells that Frederick may be suffering from AIDS in a Thai prison.”) Also on the schedule are many programs that appear to have been “narrow-cast” to different Chicago audiences: the Mike Kurban Psychic Show, Book Break, Veterans’ Forum, Kung Fu for Kids, Hockey 101, Simaye-Azadi: Figure of Freedom (in Farsi), Nuestra Cultura con Antonio Lopez, and Let Us Talk About Jesus: How to Be Saved. A number of variety shows have appeared, such as So This Is Improv, Station Breaks, Into the Gutter, Friday Night Shorts, and This Is Rhythm, a sampler of Chicago musical styles. Documentaries, sports events, meetings of community organizations, service features, live call-in programs, and political debates whose gamut runs beyond the A through C of network panels (to borrow Alexander Cockburn’s phrase) all show up on Channel 19 over the course of a typical month. There are no commercials, though when loops of future program listings are repeated for hours, as happened in a recent Sunday screw-up, viewers may pray for them.

Of course the technical quality of these programs varies widely, as does the quality of the writing, guests, and performances. CAC is required to show any material submitted as long as it meets minimal production standards, is not libelous or obscene, and does not solicit funds or promote commercial products or services. So far, according to CAC’s Williams, nothing has been rejected, though a few programs have been handed back for technical work, then shown.

Many programs shown on Channel 19 are well above “minimal” standards. The programming can jump suddenly from a single stationary camera pointed at two talking heads–the sort of shot that could have been staged in the 1950s–to sophisticated social commentary that smoothly blends animation and music with staged and live-action footage. Many of the people now producing for Channel 19 are commercial or avant-garde video workers or experienced public-access producers from other cities. CAC’s newsletter recently listed Access Zone, by a then-CAC staffer, Lilly Ollinger, and Labor Beat, a program produced regularly by the above-mentioned Committee for Labor Access, as finalists in the Hometown USA national video awards, the Emmys of local cable TV, given by the National Federation of Local Cable Programmers; I Will Never Do That Again by Chicagoan Denis Mueller won a first place in that competition. A number of programs from Channel 19 could easily be slipped into Chicago or even national commercial programming on a Sunday afternoon and few viewers would realize that they were seeing “amateur” productions.

Given public-access TV’s potential for reaching the community, and the nature of the people who have been attracted to it from the outset, it should come as no surprise that CAC has already seen more than its share of controversy and political wrangling. Its most persistent and well-organized critic–as well as one of its most prolific producers–has been the Committee for Labor Access, which is usually called simply “Labor Beat,” after the show it produces. This group of media and labor activists came together in the fall of 1983 to push for the opening of CAC’s first functioning channel–which finally happened in late 1986. Since then they have produced diverse programs on workers and union struggles in the U.S., the Philippines, Guatemala, and elsewhere.

One complaint commonly voiced by Labor Beat and other producers is that CAC presents too many bureaucratic barriers to access. Some prospective producers have had to wait more than six months to get into a class. Once in, “It was ridiculously easy,” according to one new producer. “If I’d had a job at the time I probably would not have been able to attend the four eight-hour classes, since they were held during the day. But I took them, passed the test, and now they’re going to let me make videos–if I get through the paperwork.” The “immense amount of red tape” that must be cut before a camera can be checked out or a program shown is a complaint heard from every producer I interviewed.

Another bone of contention has been control of CAC and the makeup of its board. When the City Council created the means for CAC to become a “quasi-public” corporation, the ordinances mandated only that it have a board of directors whose election procedures would “assure broad-based representation and . . . guard against . . . self-perpetua[tion].” A group of “incorporators,” chosen by Mayor Byrne and various civic groups, selected the first 50-member board, and since then the membership has been self-selecting, the board itself choosing new members as old ones leave or their terms expire. Doug Cassel, who serves on the board, says the intent was “to insulate the board from the control of the mayor and the council.” There was hope that the public-access system could avoid becoming a victim of Chicago patronage politics.

To a degree, this effort has succeeded. CAC has been quietly operating for some time now, over a period when many municipal operations with similar budgets and staff size have bogged down in the morass of city politics. In some areas, such as affirmative action, CAC might serve as a model for city departments. (The Chicago Fire Department may have comparable percentages of women, black, and Latino fire fighters by the year 2000 if it keeps taking on minorities at its current pace.) But in many areas, charge the members of Labor Beat and other public-access activists, CAC is insulated from the public as well as from the mayor and the council.

Thus, when producers and staff complain that eight portable cameras are not enough to serve the growing number of access users, they are told that the budget will not allow new purchases. Yet anyone who asks to see the budget, to examine how CAC has spent the $3.5 million that it’s supposed to have received thus far from the city’s agreement with the franchise winners, is told that the books are not open. Though visitors are allowed at CAC board meetings, the directors recently voted to ban the videotaping of those sessions. Cassel, among others, opposed this vote. One board member found it ironic that Channel 19 would cablecast all seven and a half hours of the City Council session to select an acting mayor, yet would not put its own meetings on the air once a month.

To address concerns such as these, the CAC board amended the corporate bylaws last summer to allow producers to elect representatives to the board. Five producers, one from each cable franchise area, are to be elected yearly for each of three years. The board as a whole will retain control of the remaining 35 seats. The first five producers, including two Labor Beat members, were elected last December. But still there are complaints. CAC’s Williams says that only “qualified” producers will be eligible for the elected spots, and one dissatisfied producer claims that this sets up a double standard–he is certain, he says, that most board members are not certified producers and many do not even have cable in their homes. Another producer says the whole situation is similar to having a college for the deaf run by people who do not know sign language.

Labor Beat is not satisfied with 15 elected spots. “We called for CAC to become a public corporation with open meetings to be cablecast live,” states Sheila Tarr, one of the new board members. “We also want a majority of the board to be elected and chosen from producers.

“Right now they run the risk of being a self-perpetuating body, which could turn them into a self-serving body. Where is their accountability to the audience or to the producer?”

Doug Cassel has also argued against the self-selection procedures of the board, though he cautions against a board composed entirely of producers or one selected entirely by the viewing audience. “We didn’t want a setup similar to the way judges are elected, where thousands of people vote for hundreds of candidates they know nothing about. And I’m not a producer, though I wish I had time for it. But I certainly want some CPAs and lawyers on that board, whether they’re producers or not.

It was CAC’s lack of accountability, according to several Labor Beat members, that led to the pickets at the studio protesting Race and Reason, which has become the focus of CAC’s most public controversy. When Labor Beat members learned that Channel 19 had scheduled an episode of the show–a “vile, disgusting half-hour of racism, hatred, and plain-simple-minded intellectual dung,” according to Sun-Times TV critic Daniel Ruth–they appealed to the board to cancel the program. The first episode ran as scheduled; on it, a guest opined that “niggers should be gassed.”

“If they were really trying to be community-access TV as they proclaim,” said Larry Duncan of Labor Beat, “then that program would never have gone on.”

Thomas Metzger, the host and producer of Race and Reason, is not yet well-known in Chicago. A former grand dragon of the California Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, he is the founder of a group called the White Aryan Resistance, which calls for a civil war in the United States to “cleanse it of the mud people,” which is WAR’s term for all “non-Aryans.” Callers to WAR’s “hate hot-line” in several California cities can hear messages such as one calling for “Jewish doctors and their perverted lesbian nurses” to be hanged with piano wire. Metzger has led armed patrols of the U.S.-Mexican border, where he promised to shoot any illegal aliens. As might be expected, he is a speaker much in demand at cross-burnings and similar events.

Race and Reason has been cablecast at least six times on Channel 19. CAC says it has no alternative but to show the program, and recent Supreme Court decisions extending the First Amendment’s applicability to cable television support that position. Even the Center for Democratic Renewal, a clearinghouse for organizing efforts against the Klan and groups such as Metzger’s, concedes that no public-access station has been able to keep Race and Reason off its schedule, despite numerous efforts. Eva Sears of the Center, who calls Metzger one of the most dangerous radical-right militants in the country, says that he now appears on more than 40 public-access channels from coast to coast.

Metzger would undoubtedly appear weekly on Channel 19, rather than once every two or three months, were it not for a current CAC rule–albeit a vague and unspecified one–that limits the number of programs it will carry from non-Chicago sources. Ironically, though Labor Beat wants Race and Reason banned, it opposes this local-source rule as a “bureaucratic method of censorship,” in the words of Larry Duncan. When Labor Beat members Sheila Tarr and Bob Hercules ran for the CAC board, their platform called for “filling all six channels”; though they agree that CAC should give priority to Chicago-produced video, they want the system opened up to programming from the outside, so the currently unused channels can be put in service and Channel 19’s current schedule (Monday-Friday 5-11 PM, Sunday 9-6, Saturday variable) can be expanded.

“There’s a wealth of great public-access video that CAC could be showing if they opened Channel 36 to programs produced outside Chicago,” says Tarr. “There would have to be some limits, but if Paper Tiger, Deep Dish Video, and other nationally available video and public-access programs were shown, then Channel 36 would be filled. And CAC knows this.”

(Paper Tiger is a series of shows made by public-access producers in Manhattan. Deep Dish is a national clearinghouse/network of public-access programs; it collects shows from local producers and transmits them to local cable systems by satellite. In 1987 a ten-week pilot series, which won Deep Dish a Hometown USA award, was transmitted to 300 cable systems in 41 states. Deep Dish came to Chicago this month with a new 18-program series, which appears on Channel 19 on Thursdays at 10 PM, following Labor Beat. The series includes animation by Native American children; shows on labor struggles, AIDS, and housing activism; the International Women’s Day Video Festival; and a stinging parody of Max Headroom.)

Bob Hercules of Labor Beat says there is a danger in not filling the channels. He points out, “CAC knows that they can lose channels if they’re not used enough. Commercial cable companies want use of the low numbers, such as Channel 21, that people turn to first, not stuff in the 80s. Public-access channels have been lost in other communities because they haven’t been used.”

Chicago’s cable ordinances do indeed include provisions for taking channels away from CAC if they are not used. CAC’s Williams says that Channel 36 will be opened along with another channel by the end of 1988, and that Channel 19’s weekday schedule will expand to noon-midnight starting in June, making more space available for programs from outside Chicago. But she adds, “You have to remember that we’re Chicago Access Corporation, and every program costs money to put on cable.”

One thing is obvious in examining the experiences of public-access systems across the U.S.: even though only one-fifth of all U.S. cable systems now have provisions for public access (Deep Dish counts 71.6 systems that do), most commercial cable operations have never been comfortable with the concept or the reality. A typical comment from one cable executive quoted in the Tribune described public-access TV as “very amateurish, incredibly dull and boring. [It’s] Mr. Jones down the street talking about fly fishing.” At least two lawsuits taken to the Supreme Court and a sustained lobbying effort in Congress by cable associations have attempted to remove the obligation of franchise holders to provide public access.

That the animosity toward noncommercial cable goes beyond artistic disdain becomes easy to understand when the financial stakes are considered. As of 1987, half of the homes in the U.S. were getting their TV pictures through a wire rather than over the air. Though cable TV’s main source of revenue remains subscribers’ fees, Consumer Reports states that 1988 advertising revenue for cable will exceed $1 billion, a considerable leap from $3 million in 1970. In those communities where public access exists, programs that have become series and garnered notice in the press have attracted a steadily growing percentage of cable viewers. In East Lansing, Michigan–a small and atypical community, admittedly, but one of the few where detailed studies of public-access viewership have been done–50 percent of all cable subscribers claimed to watch public-access TV; 20 percent said they were regular viewers of a public-access series. Some claimed they bought cable just to get public-access programs. Closer to home, CAC reports that Channel 42, its “telephone-access” channel, receives an average of 500 calls per day.

Such numbers may not seem like much compared to the millions who subscribe to cable to get HBO, or the tens of millions who regularly watch network TV programs. When Martha Wallner of the Deep Dish network spoke to a group of 75 producers at a forum here last month, she was asked how many people watched the first Deep Dish series. “I don’t know,” was her response. But if even 10 percent of cable subscribers begin to tune in Deep Dish, that will be the beginning of an alternative national network that could play havoc with those who sell commercials and programs and cable systems on the basis of the number of consumers they reach. Deep Dish’s budget for 18 one-hour programs to be sent to 500 systems is $60,000, including the costs of satellite transmission. That wouldn’t buy a minute of airtime on national TV most nights.

Though many public-access producers probably dream of the day their series will pull a 20 share, that day is not rapidly approaching in Chicago. The major source of TV programming information for most people (and, not coincidentally, one of the best-selling magazines in the U.S.) is TV Guide. Channel 19 is not listed there. Nor are any CAC channels listed in the Sun-Times, Tribune, or Defender TV guides. A Sun-Times staffer who works on the paper’s TV listings says he never gets Channel 19’s schedule two weeks ahead of airtime, which is the usual deadline. But, he adds, he would not list public-access programs, “except for an occasional special,” even if the schedules were submitted on time, since “then I’d have to list all the suburbs’ public-access channels too.”

CAC mails its monthly listing of programs to a few thousand CAC members, not to Chicago’s 200,000 cable subscribers. It advises producers to use all possible means to make potential viewers aware of forthcoming programs, including press releases, leaflets, and word of mouth. Most producers probably agree with one’s exasperated comment after struggling to publicize a program. She said she had gone into public-access TV to avoid handing out leaflets.

“Public access,” writes DeeDee Halleck, a Paper Tiger worker, “. . . is an emancipatory moment yet to be realized.” In Chicago, for the most part, it is also yet to be watched. But anything can happen. Stay tuned.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.