Part: 1

A Symbol of Democracy in the US:

An interview with Clifford JACOBS*
Interviewed by Bircan UNVER

"I think what is more significant is the whole idea of cable, because that is what made public access possible and taking a note where in 1949, the people in Pennsylvania in one town."

"The FCC felt that television can also be used for educational purpose and the most important phrase they used was to establish a public trust.  And the public trust, as we know it, came about with the creation of public television."

"It's one of the greatest things in the world that people have an opportunity to express themselves.  They don't have to censor their speech.  We don't censor it; we do not screen the programs.  It's really truly an exercise of the first amendment."

Clifford JACOBS; Director of Access Producer Services of QPTV

My Queens Public Television experiences have given me great exposure in terms of freedom of expression or simply expressing my ideas through television programs at QPTV's four channels for ten years.

At the beginning, I felt that this path would help me reach a mainstream media platform or at least one point this would merge with that. However, this didn't happen. But I have gained much more than that... Now that is not the only expectations that I have... Furthermore, I do not need to merge my experiences with mainstream media for living purposes, because something has become much more essential in my life which is to produce more programs freely and be myself rather than applying someone elses ideas.

Once I have discovered self-satisfaction, what I'd like to do and what I can do despite limited resources; technically and financially. Then why not this can be an alternative approach to mainstream media which only stresses profit or directly interlocking with commercials rather than public interests or a humanitarian approach. 

After several years, in particular, I became much more familiar with the computer environment and web designing, I realized that the essence of public televison and the Internet has had the same concept. Of course, in present, the internet has a global connection in contrary to public television which is mostly local!  I learned and gained so much from my own Queens Public Access Television experiences. I consider that many are not aware about its --as public access tv-- very essential role in the U.S. community. This is the reason that I dedicate this issue to Queens Public Televison where I have found my path to my inner light.

Over all, I strongly believe that the essence of public access television and the medium itself will emerge with the Internet or will be available over satellites on many corners of the world in the near future... Therefore, I'd like to bring to the light, what is public access television, how it was started, who sponsors or funds it, what is its current implications in the community, and what will be its future in the U.S.?

Clifford JACOBS; Director of Access Producer Services of QPTV, will be sharing his experiences and knowledge with us in this matter via below interview. B.U.

When was the very first public access TV broadcast in the US?

I'm not really sure when the first public access program was broadcast in the United States.  Public access was an evolution.  It wasn't like, okay this is the first date because there were; for example, back in the 80's, late 70's, Manhattan had a Channel A, a Channel D and these programs were produced by people from the community.  But they really weren't calling it public access.  But, yet, independent producers could have their workshop.  They also had lease access.  A lease access is different from public access in that you can buy the time on the channel very cheaply. Maybe, one hour will cost you fifty dollars.  And then you can have commercials in your program.  So, It's priced to be affordable to the independent producer.  You can sell commercials to paying the fifty dollars.  And any money you make over that is yours to keep.  So, a lot of producers start out in public access and go to lease access.  They pay the cable company fifty dollars for, say, a one-hour slot.  I think it is more expensive now. 

Is this still in existent?

Oh sure, it's always been in existent.

I never knew that.  I heard it here for the first time.

Philosophically, if public access is high school, then lease access is college.  You know, for the producer who wants to be independent.  That way if you want to try to make money and also, sell advertising to the community to support your program, you can do that, in lease access.

For example, in Queens or Manhattan, which channels are now lease?

It depends.  Most of the lease access in Queens are run by the Greek channel, the Korean channel, and I think the Indian channel.  But in other parts of the city, the cable company runs the lease access channels.  So you call Time Warner up and say I'm interested in lease access.  And Time Warner says okay; "we have an half hour slots and we have one hour slots.  If you want the slot' I think actually, now 'it may cost you about 200 dollars' say for one hour!  Time Warner gives you an hour slot; you pay 200 dollars for that slot every time you are on. But, If you go out and' if you know television, you know that a one hour program or commercial TV is only about 45 minutes long.  Maybe 43 minutes long in 17 minutes of commercials.  So if you go out in the community and you videotape 17 commercials and you charge somebody $100 dollars for each commercial 'that's $1700 dollars.  You take $200 dollars; you pay Time Warner for your slot and you keep $1500 dollars.  

Sadiye Unver, Gulsun Erbil, Bircan Unver and CliffordJacobs
during the reception of "On The Twentieth Century: Nazim Hikmet"
documentary at the QPTV on January 13, 2000.

Did this lead to public access?

No, I don't think it necessarily led to public access.  But that was around too, and I think it is still around.  So to answer the original question, I don't know that we can actually pinpoint the very first public access.  I think what is more significant is the whole idea of cable, because that is what made public access possible and taking a note where in 1949, the people in Pennsylvania in one town.  I think it was Lancaster.  They could not receive the TV signal because there were too many mountains and the town was in the valley.  And at that time it was only broadcast Television.  And because it is broadcast, it goes through the air.  It's this electronic wave that the mountains block the reception.  So this one guy in 1949, had an antenna and instead of broadcasting, he ran cables to the homes of the people in the valley and that sent them a direct signal.  And that's how, basically, what they call community-antenna television was created.  And that happened in 1949.  So cable is what makes public access possible.  Because you could not have public access on broadcast because it was too expensive.  The only people that could broadcast'you know' if you grew up in this country when I did, there was basically three networks, maybe four 'CBS, NBC, ABC and channel 13.  Those are the only channels we had growing up. There was no way that they can give a frequency, just like on a radio, to the people.  Plus you had to have all this equipment, which was very expensive.

Do you have a general idea to how many public access stations we have today?

That's a hard question because there is a public access center in virtually almost every city.  Certainly it is in every state.  Like New York City have five.  But there are others in New York State.  There may be as many as 50 or 60 just in New York State alone.  In Portland Oregon'in the city of Portland there are 2 or 3.  And in the state there may be 50 or 60.  Public access can be found in every city.  I don't have a number.  The only place you can probably get that is from Alliance for Community Media in Washington, DC.  But, they can only tell you who are members of the alliance.  Because there might be other public access centers in the United States, but they may not be a member of the alliance.

Is there an accurate number?

Because in some places the public access is run by the cable company.  So they may not join an organization because the access is run by, say Time Warner, or whoever the cable company is.  The access center was unique because it was setup as an independent private business that is not run by the cable company.  In other places the cable company itself runs the access center.  And that's like having the wolf watch the sheep.  That's not a good arrangement. 

Can you explain that phrase?

In many cases, the cable company does not like public access.  Like Cable Vision is the other cable company that is in competition with Time Warner.  They're very bad for public access.  They do not like public access because no body wants to give millions of dollars to a company that is not going to make money.  In public access we do not make money, we spend it. We are a necessary evil, as they say.

You mean having the wolf watch the sheep? Because a wolf basically kills sheep to stay alive.  A wolf needs to eat, and a sheep is very easy to kill.  So, it's like having your enemy watch your children.  In many cases, the cable company does not like public access.  Like Cable Vision is the other cable company that is in competition with Time Warner.  They're very bad for public access.  They do not like public access because no body wants to give millions of dollars to a company that is not going to make money.  In public access we do not make money, we spend it.  We are a necessary evil, as they say.  In other words, the cable company is forced to pay for public access by the city 'whatever city, California, Boston, New York, just so they can have the right to do business in that community.  So, Time Warner brings cable to the borough of Queens.  That means that it had to install cable on the city streets. But you cannot just go out and dig up the city street without permission from the Mayor.  The Mayor says 'that if you want to dig up the city street, it's going to cost you this amount of money.  In the franchise agreement, it says, you are going to have a hundred channels.  You have to give four of those channels to the people of Queens.  You also have to build them a studio and then you have to pay for everything.'

Does the mayor makes the requirement to the cable company?

Not so much the mayor as an individual but the city of New York, of which the mayor is the representative.  Time Warner is just a business.  And you cannot just go bring a truck and start digging up the streets and putting cables, because that's the property of the city.  So the city says, "if you want to do this, then you have to give us.  Then you can install cable."  After they install cable, say in Flushing, and let's say there are 200,000 thousand people in Flushing or let's say there are 150,000 people in Flushing.  They are going to go around knocking on everyone's door to get them to buy cable.  So that means that they are going to make millions of dollars off the people.  So what do we get in return?  The city says, 'you have to give them something back.  And that's what public access is all about.

Who funds public access?

Whoever the cable operator is in that area has to pay for it.  In the Bronx, it is Time Warner and Cable Vision.  And in Brooklyn, it is also Time Warner and Cable Vision.  In some of the boroughs, Time Warner is not the only cable company.  Also, with the creation with RCN.  A competitor to the cable company.  I'm not know if they have to give money to public access , but they have to carry our channels.  Whoever the cable company is in your area, that’s who pays for the public access.

Is it supported by the major state?

No, public access is not supported in any way by the government.  Sometimes people say that "I have a right to public access.  It's my right as a tax payer."  And that's not true.  The fact that someone pays taxes has nothing to do with public access. It doesn't come from the taxpayers.  It comes from the cable company.  If you are a tax payer, but you do not have cable television at home.  And I have someone here at work that doesn't pay taxes but they do have cable.  They are the one's who support public access, not you.  The fact that you pay taxes to the government, the government doesn't give anything to public access; zero.

Are the main supporters cable subscribers?

Yes, the money we get 'for every dollar you pay' maybe 10 cents from every dollar.  If your cable bill this month is $50 dollars, we get 10 cents off of every dollar.  That's what supports public access.

How many subscribers do you have?

In Queens it is 400,000.  I think citywide; it's just over a million.  It's kind of a big number but the census determines that New York has 8 million people. There are a lot of people who do not have cable because from the five boroughs, you have about 1 million.  Sure, there are some cable subscribers who are a part of Cable Vision and they are not Time Warner.  So Time Warner does not count them. Just the ones that Times Warner has' is a little over a million, plus the subscribers that Cable Vision has.  Because that is there competition to Time Warner.

When did you start to work at Queens public TV? What was your very first impression because it is different than other TV stations.?

Initially, it took me a while to adjust.  When I told my colleagues, I used to do industrial TV that I was going to take a job at public access.  They said," why are you going to do that."  They didn't want me to do it.  "It's terrible, it's awful, and it's the worst thing that you can do."  They said that I shouldn't do that because it is bad for my career.  But I did it anyway.  And initially it was hard, because I wasn't used to working with nonprofessionals.  Because I had only worked with people who had my same background in training.  So working with people who never saw a camera; it was very hard I was expecting so much from the students, and then I realized that they were not professional.  And that I had to change how I was thinking about it.  I had a hard tie adjusting at first and then I began understanding how public access worked philosophically. And that helped me to understand that public access is like a public library.  In a public library you have many different kinds of books. 

You have books for young children.  You have books for teenagers and you have books for adults.  And in public access, I had to understand that the people coming into to learn television were almost like little the children coming to read children books. In terms of television experience, they didn't have it.  Some people literally never saw a camera in their life.  So my job was to help them grow up so that they can mature as producers and produce on an adult level.  Just like eventually the child will develop from reading fairy tales and little red riding hood to maybe reading Thomas Mann and James Joyce and some other great writers. But it was very hard coming here to work because I never worked with amateurs before.

For instance, when Queens Public TV had began its first training courses, how did the Queens community receive it?  How many potential producers applied to become public access producers?  What was the demand or its very first impact over the community?

First of all, QPTV as an idea was born in 1982.  That's when it was first brought as an idea to bring public access to Queens.

That took almost five years until there was a physical place. I think that there were people here in 1987.  I came in 1988 and we still had not played a single program on the air.  They had started doing a little bit of training.  At that time, there weren't that many people here. Maybe, there were only 20 or 25 people.  That's a lot if there were that many.  It may have been less than that. In 1988, by that time, Al Crawford was hired as the program director, so he was the one who had the first program on the air in the spring of 1988.  Since then, we've grown a lot.  We have on our register 500 producers.  But we've trained more than that.  I've trained well over 1000 people.  Maybe 1500.  Within the company, I'm sure that Steve, Madeline and myself, I'm sure we trained close to 3000 people here, since we first opened our doors.  But they do not all stay.  Out of 3000 maybe we have 500.  And everyone on that list is active.  But that is okay.

How many monthly programs do you have aired on TV yearly?

(I have to ask Al and he can tell you that better than I can.  But you can figure that) We have four channels and we are on until midnight and we are on 5 days a week.  Hourly wise, we are programming about 296 hours a week.  You always have to times it by four channels and that is what makes the numbers so high.  If you are on 12 hours a day on four channels, that's 48 hours a day of programming because you have four channels on.  And you need programs for all those channels, and then you multiply that by five.  We cablecast for about 12 hours each day.  Saturday and Sunday, we cablecast for about 7 hours. So you add that all together and it's almost 300 hours a week.

You made a wonderful comparison between public access with commercial cable or network or PBS; how can we distinguish their concepts and restrictions from each other?

People used to think that broadcast television was free.  Television was never free.  You never paid for it.  But when you bought a television, you turned it on you watched a program on TV and they had commercials.

PBS was really created as a result of the FCC saying to broadcaster's and the word broadcast is very different than cablecast' it's not just semantics in terms of words.  It's totally different.  And legally the responsibilities are very different.  So when we say cablecast, we mean cablecast and broadcast as broadcast.  And the FCC had said to the broadcasters, meaning CBS, NBC, the network's that TV shouldn't just be an opportunity to have a lot of commercials to get people to buy things.  People used to think that broadcast television was free.  Television was never free.  You never paid for it.  But when you bought a television, you turned it on you watched a program on TV and they had commercials. And then you would go shopping on the weekends and buy your groceries, and that's how Television made money.  Because you would buy the products you saw advertised on television. The FCC felt that television can also be used for educational purpose and the most important phrase they used was to establish a public trust.  And the public trust, as we know it, came about with the creation of public television.  You know, WNET channel 13.  That doesn't mean that you and I can just go there and put out programs on.  No, but it means that they create this noncommercial educational channel.  So that people who wanted to be exposed to the arts, to science, or to nature.  Maybe even, what they call "distant learning."  Maybe you can't afford to go to college, so you take this course on channel 13.  That's what public television was.  They survived mostly on donations.  They mainly got money from the government.  Not a lot, but some.  And they were also allowed to raise money.  They can have different drives and ask the viewers to donate money so that they can continue doing what they are doing.

Public access TV is really television of the people, by the people and for the people.  Public television like channel 13 still has content restrictions.  You can't show certain things.  There are still some FCC regulations there.  But in public access, we don't really live under FCC rules.  We are a different entity and in public access "you know" my grandmother and your grandmother can have their own TV program.  They can't have their own program on public television because it is a different thing.  So really, public access "the most important word is access, accessibility; to have access to the channels".  We do not have access to CBS.  We do not have access to NBC.  We do not have access to channel 13. And if you want your program to be on channel 13, you have to pay them money to put your show's if they think it's good enough. But in public access anyone who creates a program will go on the air. So what if it's not perfect; if the camera is not that good, or if the lighting is not that good.  Because if we use the same criteria that the networks do, ninety-nine percent of the people would not be here.  Because nobody is a professional.  You really can't use the professional standard.  You know, if I have a producer that is 69 years old, and I judge his program by what CBS does; they will never measure up.  Because they cannot do that kind of thing.  So you can't use broadcast as a standard to judge public access.  People think that when public access grows up, we want to be like CBS or NBC.  And I tell people already that we are grown up.  In public access this is what it is supposed to be. It is supposed to be a little radical. So what if the camera is a little shaky and the lighting is a little bad. So that is public access.  That's the way it is supposed to be.  We try to teach people to do their programs so that they do look as good as possible.  But sometimes it takes a long time to develop that.  And if it doesn't look good, we are not going to reject it.  Because that is what corporate capitalist television does.  It looks at your program and says, "we are not interested in a program about your grandmother who came from Turkey, or Africa or China.  We do not want that."  That is what the networks are going to tell you. You are not going to get your show on CBS just like that.  That's why public access TV exists, because that program about your grandmother, my grandmother or my grandfather will be put on QPTV and people will see it. 

In our previous conversation, you were talking about 'freedom of speech, the diversified programs, and that everyone has a right... I would like to get your opinion on that?

It's one of the greatest things in the world that people have an opportunity to express themselves.  They don't have to censor their speech.  We don't censor it; we do not screen the programs.  It's really truly an exercise of the first amendment.  You  will not find that in too many places unless you print your own newspaper, or you, as we say, "take your soap box."  It used to be that soap that you clean yourself with used to come in a box.  And so, years ago, hundreds of years ago, people used to take the soap box in the middle of the park or on the street corner and just give a speech.  And people would just gather around and listen.  And that's why public access is called the "video soapbox."  Soapbox means that, if you want, you can go right downstairs to Kissena Boulevard and just give a speech.  That's your freedom if you wanted to do that.  If people want to listen, they will stop and listen to you.  If they are not interested in listening to you, then they will keep on going. And, so, that's freedom of expression.  That's how it used to be done. In 1774, before the American Revolution, we got our freedom of independence and that is how people got their message out by standing on a soapbox in the middle of the street communicating with people.  Later someone turned to their own printing press and instead of standing on their soapbox, they just print up a flyer with their beliefs and they hand it out to people so people can read.  Well, that's what public access is.  It's the video soapbox.  It's an opportunity for every human being him or herself freely and without censorship.

In my opinion of what people do is totally insignificant.  My opinion of what all the producers do is no relevant at all.  Because, I am not here to pass an opinion of what people do.  I am only here to help them get their idea onto tape.  It doesn't matter what the idea is.  I don't care about the idea.  My job is to help them get a thought onto the tape.  It's not easy working here because sometimes you have to help people, even if you disagree with their particular opinion. And that's very possible.  I am not going to like what everyone does here, but I don't get paid to judge their program for good or for bad.  I'm indifferent.  People want to tell me about the program, I go, "Okay, that's fine."  It doesn't matter to me, because that's their first amendment right.  I usually tell people when they come in and say, "Oh, I have this idea." I tell them that they do not have to convince me.  If you go to CBS "yes", you have to convince them and you have to sell them your idea.  And here, all ideas are acceptable.  All of them are acceptable.

As an insider looking outside, what is the impact of QPTV, locally, to the Queens community?

There are a lot of impacts.  There are certainly issues in the community.  Sometimes there are issues where they might be using a vacant lot in their neighborhood to dump garbage, and nothing is being done about it.  So a producer will come in and check out a camera and do a program about how they are dumping garbage on this lot in their neighborhood. It'll go on the air and it will get a response for positive or negative, for better or for worse.  But, people will stand up and notice.  Because CBS is not going to send someone out to do their little story. They're too busy covering George Bush and Allen Greenspan and the Federal Reserve and what's going on in Macedonia.  They do not have time to go to Flushing and cover that story.  Or go to Rockaway to cover how the beaches are eroding because of what they are building out there.  So Public access does have a very dynamic impact on the community.  And that impact has grown and it keeps growing the longer we are here, because we are the only TV station for the borough of Queens.  That's it, there's nobody specifically for the borough of Queens.  So, That's very important.  It's also true that Time Warner doesn't realize this, but, quite a number of years ago, this is going back to, maybe, 1989-1990.  And a producer was producing a program for the Afghani community, people from Afghanistan.  And a lot of Afghan people in the community signed up to get cable because the only place where they can get information about their country and information that related to them, as Afghani's, was on QPTV.  No other channel in NYC had an Afghani program.  So, you will find that happens a lot, that on QPTV or public access, people will do programs and address the needs of the community and that are being ignored by corporate television.  And that's a good thing. Where can you find programs about Albanians or Macedonians, or people from Malta?  You are going to find it on Public access. You wil not  find it on CBS.  If you think so, good luck.  But I don't think so.

If someone wants to know about public access or if they know anything about it, what are the requirements to be a public access producer?

The only requirement is that you have a Queens address.  That's it!  Anybody that has a Queens address. You do not need previous experience or previous knowledge or anything.  We show you how to do everything from A-Z.  And, anyone that lives in the borough of Queens can come here we'll teach them how to use the equipment. If you have your own equipment and you want to produce, give us the tapes and we'll play them.  Because a person that lives in the borough has the same right as someone who takes the training courses in terms of access to the channels.

Is't it true that if someone who wants to have acess to your channels, that person has to take a training course?

No. You don't have to take..because we have, I said 500 hundred producer' that's how many people took the course, but there is probably a hundred or more that don't use our equipment at all.

Even editing?  Just airing?

Just airing.

That's good to know!

They do not have to take the course.  They just come and give us the tapes and we play it.  That's it! The course is for if you want to touch our equipment.  But if you have your own equipment you can give us the tape in the format we use, which is, right now U-Matic, then all you have to do is give us the tape.  No problem.  You don't have to take the class.

Second part will publish in the SUMMER'01 issue.

*A Profile of Clifford JACOBS

Queens Public Television

BAHAR sayisi web'dedir.



@The Light Millennium magazine was created and designed
by Bircan ÜNVER. 6th issue. Summer 2001, New York.
URL: http://www.lightmillennium.org