Friday, March 5, 2004

Surfin’ safari: Sampling the hidden treasures of community-access TV

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Tired of corporate "reality TV?" Me too. The remedy? Explore the local version. My South Portland home theater (uh, basement 19-inch TV) features the best basic-cable package Time Warner Cable of Maine offers. It’s called "Lifeline," and it comes complete with one TV Guide channel, five major-network affiliates, C-SPAN 1 and 2, two public-television stations, and 4000 shopping channels. Blah, blah, all of it.

To interest me, it has to be local. I don’t mean "We have studios in Portland" local. I don’t mean "We used to employ actual native Mainers until we sold to a big out-of-state company" local.

I mean so local it hurts. Raw, uncut, "I think I saw that woman in the line at Hannaford" local. And, in fact, the first face I saw when I turned on South Portland’s Channel 2 Thursday night was a familiar one.

There in living color was Al Barthelman of Cape Elizabeth. He was asking the South Portland Rotary club for a donation to help maintain and improve Fort Williams. And in the first five minutes of his plea, I learned something new about the landmark park: folks who look out to sea help pay for upkeep, Barthelman told the Rotarians. "The binoculars, you know. Every quarter helps," he said.

I settled back into the recliner couch, nursing my Labatt’s (party leftovers — it’s my chore to clean out the fridge). This was what I was hoping for. Barthelman had it going on. All the facts, the figures, his lines well-rehearsed.

The lighting showed his face clearly as he worked his way through a single emotion. Standing in front of the unseen Rotarian hordes, Barthelman evoked memories of fun times spent at the fort, lit my patriotic fervor with allusions to its past military grandeur, and above all, won the thunderous applause of the audience, and me, as he wound up his presentation with a simple expression of gratitude.

Suddenly considering joining a group whose symbol is a sprocket, I switched to Channel 4, the Greater Portland Community Television Network.

It bears reminding that these public-access stations are our birthright.

In exchange for co-opting public-communications assets for profit, Time Warner is required to provide equipment, funds, and channels for local folks to have our say, even as we drown in "content" about Michael Jackson’s role in the Princess Diana crash. (Is Ashton his alibi?)

Over on Channel 4, PowerPoint slides full of tiny print sped past — too fast to read completely. The slides’ topics included the Maine Association of Nonprofits, the United Way, and strangest of all, Cumberland County. (Does a geographic area really need to advertise?)

Later, on Channel 2, I got to watch an Air Force Television News report about domestic violence. "The Air Force has always taken an aggressive approach to the problem," the newscaster said. They’re so tuned in to "early warning signs" that Air Force authorities offered one couple counseling right away when "the problem progressed to the point where Beverly got injured." It made me glad we took over Iraq before seeing any "early warning signs" of WMDs.

I also learned, in a helpful notice from the Portland traffic department, how to push the "pedestrian button" when trying to cross the road.

Friday evening, I sat down again to enjoy the fruits of our local videographers. I found South Portland Fire Chief Kevin Guimond opening a new fire station. Not content to explain that now residents of the western half of the city might actually get some water before their houses burn to the ground, the chief called it a "wonderful, practical building."

Network execs had pitted Guimond against a self-promotion show on Channel 4, in which a vapid interviewer lobbed questions at Channel 4 program hosts. Asking longtime host Janet Alexander about her show, Healthviews, the interviewer queried, "You have doctors and experts and people like that involved?"

No doubt shocked at her simpleton interlocutor, Alexander flubbed her line. The script read, "Yes, you moron. It’s a show about health. You think I’d just go grab the clients of Portland Biologicals?" Instead, Alexander treated the probe like a serious question, helpfully explaining that people with "MD" after their name sometimes know a thing or two about sickness.

Channel 4 features two shining stars. One is No Hit Videos, in which a cameraman records live concerts of local bands and televises them, in case we prefer to have our music experience un-enhanced by body odor. The other is Shine, on which local artists perform in a sort of TV talent show.

It is "packed with talented Maine performers," said Jill Newman, the airy emcee who should be recast immediately. (Her delivery improved when she read directly from the index cards in her hand.)

Shine co-host Will Berlitz was no better. He tried to deliver a nursery rhyme about "Will and Jill," who went up the hill to have a tag-team wrestling match with reading teachers Dick and Jane. Did it fail? And how.

The show itself did feature talented Mainers, from the Hurdy Gurdy puppet show to Katherine Rhoda on antique "play-by-number" instruments such as the Marxophone and the violinguitar. There would have been more room for talent without Will and Jill’s insipid banter.

Other thrilling programming on Channel 4 includes the meetings of the Portland Water District, in which elected bureaucrats discuss things like "storm-water events," which is technical shorthand for "when sewage overflows into Casco Bay."

The PWD trustees got a good laugh from a proposal by the town of Windham to spend $10,000 improving public access to an MTBE-contaminated pond. The laugh came when two trustees asked that the project be "low-impact." For $10,000, they snorted, Windham could barely do anything.

They did not need to explain that while $10,000 would re-side my entire house and leave enough to repave the driveway, in a municipality’s hands, it was about enough for a single gumball at the supermarket.

This was high comedy, and after I got up from the floor — I’d fallen in a fit of laughter (or was it pique?) — I decided it was high time to change the channel.

Back on Channel 2, I heard from a spokesman for the Maine Army National Guard, who said the work of the Mainers in Iraq would "perhaps bring some vestige of freedom" to Iraqis. Certainly not the whole complicated democracy thing. And definitely no incendiary community television.