Cable TV public access: why are production values so horrible?

I don’t know whether this fits better in GQ or Cafe Society; mods, please feel free to move it if you want.

Anyhow, the production values of public access cable television shows around here is absolutely dismal. They look as if they’re taped on 1980s-era VHS camcorders, the sound is either dramatically overmodulated or barely audible, there’s often a 60 cycle hum, chyron titles resemble those of newscasts from the 1970s … absolutely horrible.

Thing is, I can produce far better quality video – 16:9 HD even – on my cheapish two year old digital camera. There’s inexpensive or even free video editing programs for the PC and the Mac that can produce quite impressive results. Boom, clip-on and table microphones are more sensitive and accurate than ever.

Given the accessibility and low cost of current technology, why does the production quality of cable public access shows, at least in my neck of the United States, remain so dismal?

Probably because they are using old cheap equipment. They don’t have a lot of reason to upgrade to newer stuff since they are not making money.

I worked on a public-access news program in college, so I might have some insight into this.

Bijou Drains has a lot of the problem - outside of the studio, we’d use whatever gear we could beg, borrow or steal, and a lot of it just wasn’t very good.

The bigger problem, though, was just plain lack of experience. We actually had fairly modern gear in the studio, but public access television is amateur television. Do you know how to light a soundstage properly? Do camera transitions smoothly? How about makeup for the camera? If so, fantastic - but we really didn’t know how to do any of these things.

Nor did we really know how to do things like, say, interview VIPs. There was one time we actually got a one-term US Congressman on our show. We decided that, since I was a giant nerd and our anchor was very pretty, I’d do the research and write the questions, and our anchor would actually do the interview. Problem was that none of us realized interview questions need to be tailored to the interviewer as well as the interviewee - our anchor, through no fault of her own, had no idea what she was asking, and it showed.

Public access television looks like crap, in short, because most of the people making it don’t really know how to make it look, or even sound, like not-crap.

One of my friends was into this in the 1990s. The cable company provided a little studio with some equipment. I remember Sony high-speed beta tape and using 1980s style studio cameras.

An aging Amiga was used for this kind of thing. Probably not much incentive to upgrade to the latest and greatest. So you’re pretty much dealing with 1980s technology. Even with the best of efforts, this stuff looks cheap because no one really has the skills the professionals have and that cheesy beta quality video

I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re still using the equipment we used in the 1990s. Public access is government mandated, but not the quality of the equipment. Most cable companies don’t even offer a studio. They just take your home-brew tapes and air them.

There are also exceptions to this rule. There used to be a public access comic book review show that looked pretty good. Granted, it wasn’t the Conan O’Brien show, but nothing about it had that cheesy 1980s feeling.

Lastly, the kinds of people attracted to public access tend to be crazy. Crazy people tend to not be so good with technology or aesthetics. Look at the HTML of any crazy/conspiracy site. Its all wacky colors, blinking gifs, huge fonts, etc. A saner person probably has already moved onto web distribution of video (youtube, vimeo, etc).

It should be pointed out that an Amiga is capable of producing excellent quality graphics - assuming you have a good genlock like the Magni, and some taste (NOT a given in a public access situation). Back in my video editing days, I did local Emmy winning work with an Amiga and Broadcast Titler.

Sounds like a good idea for the sane people to supply their videos to public access as well as putting them on the web.

That assumes people watch PA unironically. When I was still with Comcast I’d tune in for a few minutes just to see the freakshow. Its a marginalized and antiqued media, like printing up a 'zine or handing out a manifesto at the bus station. The web is superior in every way.

It’s become a lot less accessible in my area. They have apparently shifted it to a digital channel on Kansas City’s Everest cable system.

What’s wrong with production values like these?

There is less than zero interest in my area.

There’s still a “government access” channel, used strictly by the city (who do a pretty good job with it, thanks, I think, to a crackerjack PIO). But essentially no members of the public are using public access cable or doing web video for similar purposes. Given that our level of community involvement has always been high - although dropping, as it is many places - this seems strange to me.