Gretjen Clausing thinks it’s “just perfect” that she grew up in Media.
She has lived in Philadelphia since 1989 — currently Roxborough — but from studying film and photography at Ithaca College to helping organize the first Philadelphia Film Festival to working at the Prince Music Theater or the Scribe Video Center, Clausing says she’s always had a hand in some form of media.
And now, the 45-year-old has a new role in the same industry.
Last June, Clausing took on the role of shepherding Philadelphia Community Access Media, the city’s long-awaited public-access cable channel. It’s a big role, considering, as she says, “that Philadelphia had the dubious reputation of being the last big city in the United States without a public access channel.”
There are public broadcasters like WHYY and WYBE, which has recently been rebranded as MiND TV, but Clausing says it’s time Philadelphians have a source for their best shot at getting the most local voices on the air. Now, Clausing is tasked with making a public-access cable channel that just launched in October a serious player in a two-decades old game, but she says she has all the advantages in the deck.
Clausing is something of a self-styled TV activist. She cut her teeth on calling for transparency and reform around the late 1990s renegotiation between cable companies and the municipalities that let their cable run through the public way.
As the thumbnail sketch of this mural goes, because big cable companies muscled their way into owning and operating utility-like infrastructure through public land, a dialogue was had about what the public deserved in return. Because the cables themselves ran through the streets like government-owned water pipes or electric wires, the people, it was determined, owned the network airwaves and so deserved access to them. Cable companies then would plop money in a big pot to be doled out to stations that would do just that, give people the reigns, by way of something called PEG access — public, education and government access.
Updated: PEG access is transmitted over a closed wire network and not ‘airwaves.’
So you could watch a City Council hearing if you wanted to, and the Community College of Philadelphia has a place to give its students a voice, but until October, the people didn’t have their place.
Below watch a PhillyCAM promo
Since October, Philly CAM’s schedule has grown to about 60 hours weekly of original programming, including regular series, short films and animation, all from mostly Philly-based filmmakers.
This month, her digs in a City Hall office will see a facelift — and is hiring a third employee, a technical director to oversee all the station’s IT needs. By the summer, she hopes to open up the space for training, programming and work stations for editing and other post-production.
And that’s just it, Clausing says, without the burden of years of legacy technologies, Philly CAM can jump ahead of its bigger city competitors, many of which are mired in switching from the analog past to the digital future.
The membership organization features a $25 basic membership that warrants access to equipment, submissions and soon access to that training and software. By early 2011, Clausing hopes to open a facility with a “full-on studio” to be used by members of all stripes, styles and experience levels.
WHYY and MiND both have media literacy and training programs, too, but Clausing is certain in the difference.
“As public broadcasters, they still have programming requirements, things they can’t allow, time-limits they have to fit,” Clausing says. “Public-access cable is meant to allow any voice that meets the most very basic submission guidelines of decency.”
MiND, Clausing says, has certainly made forays into widening its voice, but in its latest iteration, most of its content is limited to five minute pieces.
“We’re encouraging people to go beyond such time limitations,” she says.
But more than competition in the space, Clausing is challenged by competition in the times. Philly CAM has to catch up in a world that may fast be making public-access cable stations seem a thing of the past, something she doesn’t see to be happening.
“We’re even more relevant that we were before the Web. Public access has always had to struggle with being seen as a vast wasteland of amateurish ‘Wayne’s World“-type programming,” she says. “That’s not to say that that isn’t there and that there isn’t beauty in it being training ground but the Web has created groundswell.”
That’s to say, the proliferation of technology and the democratization of publishing is making even the minds behind something like Wayne’s World much savvier, and giving a place to display that work hasn’t lost the importance.
And that place may be getting much more serious soon.
Later this month, Clausing says PhillyCAM will be able to upload content remotely, stream some video on-demand online and offer dynamic listings for when what content will appear, using Telvue’s content management system PEG.TV.
“This hosted solution prevent any bandwidth bottle necks and provide for unlimited simultaneous viewers,” she says. “It will take our hyper local television programming global.”
That Philadelphia has forged ahead in the cable access space can embolden others in the space across the country, Clausing says, and that may be cause enough.
“It’s a hard time for public access these days because of the increasing power of telecoms and cable companies and the increasing trend of their creating their own programming. Their commitment to keeping channel space open to the public is always coming into question,” Clausing says. “Here Philadelphia is, so late to the game and we launch and are making bold moves while so many other states are at risk of losing their public access channels. Our victory here is seen as inspiration to the national community.”
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