The Writing On the Wall

by Michael McClard


Michael McClard (left) and Jim Chladek of ETC (Experimental Television Center) studios where 90 percent of public access programming originates.

March 24, 1982

At ETC Studios, 110 East 23rd St., 9:00 PM between studio bookings. ETC is hardwired to Manhattan Cable TV's transmission next door at 120 E. 23rd St.

Jim Chladek (looking at BOMB 1) The greatest opportunity right now is making these short films, I’m telling you—

Michael McClard Is making short films? What’s the market?

JC I’m coming up with a new idea. I’m coming up with pay access. (More thumbing through BOMB) My idea is to talk the cable companies into a pay access channel and a pay access channel is…

MM That’s a good idea, more like a common carrier.

JC Yeah, so the public pays directly. I have another idea that I want to come up with that’s the public access encore, where we will take eight shows or four hours’ worth and put them on a VHS tape and start running them at 1:30 in the morning, and when the reel gets to the end it goes back and comes up again, so it runs three or four times. Wait till they hear that one.

MM Right. So how do you go about trying to implement something like that?

JC You just go over there and make a proposal.

MM And then they…decide…

JC No, because legally…the mistake that we made was when the access people asked for more time; they [Manhattan Cable] said, “We don’t run past 1:30,” and then they turned around and told the city that nobody ever asked for more time because there were no records made. So then we said, “How come they don’t have a form for a producer requesting time, give’um a receipt.” Now we’re starting that whole procedure. But the thing is, on D, D is available to you, you can have 40 hours on D for yourself. If nobody’s using the time, you can come in and say I want 40 hours to do a show.

MM Really? It’s not limited?

JC No. D is wide open to anybody as long as you’re not bumping into anybody. You don’t get preemption rights, but you can go in there.

MM You can fill up any blank time…

JC Yeah, right, open, wide open, but see, they don’t tell you this. They don’t offer this.

MM So you could do specials, all kinds of things.

JC Oh yeah, so I’m coming up with the encore approach. It takes the pressure off the prime time thing, and there’s people sitting up all night watching…you know, this silliness that goes on in the world. (Some discussion about how bad television is) So what kinds of questions do you want to ask?

MM In general, what do you think are the most important issues in television at the moment?

JC Whose television? Because there are a lot of different levels in television.

MM Yeah, but just on a broad public level.

JC Well, I think the worst thing, the biggest issue in television is that the FCC has got to get back in. I’m absolutely opposed to deregulation. I’m for regulation, but they’ve got to be guided and I think we better start coming up with a telecommunications policy fast, quick and in a hurry, because it’s going to be one big sloppy mess. There is going to have to be some kind of desire to put this house in order because we’re looking awful silly.

MM Well, what kinds of things are you…

JC A good example is Goldwater here. He finally surveyed it, studied the field of cable long enough to say, “Hey, wait a minute, we are getting screwed by the cable industry.” And he came up and said, “Okay, X number of channels have got to go to the state, X number to the access, and X number have got to be leased.” Never before in the history of cable television has anybody come out and said this…and we cop to Goldwater for this. Have you read it yet?

MM No.

JC You should get a copy.

MM Is it in the Federal Register?

JC Yeah, he submitted it, so it should be. I’d like for you to read it. He said, if you’ve got a hundred channels, 10 percent goes automatically to these various public levels so the cable operator doesn’t sit there forever making pay-TV channels.

MM It seems a little absurd that the whole body of regulations have been dissolved, and now we’re going to…

JC No, no that was stupidity. That wasn’t planned. Nobody really sat down. That set of rules that the FCC had for cable television were designed by the NAB [National Association of Broadcasters]. Those were NAB rules. No, that’s not fair play, therefore they were stupid. They didn’t work. The thing is that if a cable operator doesn’t want to be involved with access, which to me is absolute insanity because if he doesn’t see it now, the writing on the wall, with the onslaught of DBS [Direct Broadcast Satellite] and everything else coming down the pipe…

MM Why do you think they are going to need it?

JC Localism. DBS can’t offer localism, neither can the little microband companies. Low power…I can’t even see a low power TV station in these markets offering localism because they’re going to be wined and dined to go to scrambled pay-TV applications.

MM So you see the whole low power thing as turning into a kind of wireless cable.

JC Look at the applicants. Yeah, scrambled. I think the government should give the low power stations to people who will not scramble.

MM The DBS thing that’s coming up, do you have any idea how many channels that involves?

JC There are 10 or 12 applicants now, four or five at a crack, that’s 50 to 100 channels. One guy has a whole 12 channel configuration that he’s asking for.

MM How soon do you think that’s going to be available?

JC Well ’83 is the first target date.

MM So DBS will be quite competitive with cable.

JC Competitive? They’ll offer a better picture than cable.

MM And they’ll be able to reach all of those markets without laying down the wires.

JC You got it. Those guys living a mile apart are going to have dish pans all over their back yards.

MM Will that work here in the city?

JC Sure. They’re assigning bandwidth in areas now where there’s nobody using it. So that gives them a chance of saying that this frequency from here to here is going to be ours. Nobody can do anything on the ground with it.

MM So the DBS stuff is probably going to develop along lines identical to cable and all of the other broadcasting. Do you think it is going to cause the cable systems to atrophy?

JC If they’re not smart. They’ve got a good chance right now. They’ve got a 2 to 3 year run; and localism is going to save their act. I remember very well in the radio days when all these radio stations here hooked to mini networks—ABC, Mutual, Red and Blue, and all these popular little things—and overnight television comes roaring down the pike and before you know it, Jack Benny has left radio. They’re all vacating. People who a month before were saying, “I don’t want to go to television. I’m not interested.” And with that, the whole CM structure right across the radio networks went out the door. In fact, they did it in 6 months. It was dead. I mean the die hards like CBS, NBC, ABC stayed in, but the glamour and luster had left radio. It ran to television. All the talent ran over. But the guys who were running the record shows for the teeny boppers and playing music became the big bananas in town.

MM Do you think the cable companies will be offering incentives to producers?

JC If I were running Cable Television I would have 6 local origination channels on the boards at this point.

MM I thought they were supposed to. Isn’t that part of their charter?

JC No, not on their card. They have one channel that they’re supposed to originate on.

MM I thought they were supposed to provide studios.

JC See, nobody knew what was going to happen when they came up there. I remember when they used to have the equipment. The kids would bang the shit out of it. They didn’t know what it was. It got stolen—they’d pull the connectors apart. Half the stuff worked half the time when they got it on the job. They didn’t even know how to thread the tape sometimes even when they went to the classes.

MM These were people who were working for Manhattan Cable?

JC No, no, no, these were people that came in off the street to use the access and they were all college students. So when we (ETC) came on the scene we were the biggest find in history because you didn’t have to go any place electro mechanically. All you had to do was come here, sit down in front of the camera and do it.


A panoramic view of ETC.

MM How long has the ETC operation been going?

JC This one here? It started in ‘74, the fall of ’74, and we haven’t stopped since then, and if I had a larger capacity I would handle more producers.

MM Do you have a new studio downstairs?

JC We’re in the middle of remodeling the upstairs. When that studio gets done that’s going to be strictly for the single camera telephone shows—color or black and white upstairs, and they just go up by themselves and do a little thing up there and that frees these two facilities [existing studios]. Then this studio is going to be refurbished. But you can see that by offering their one little service, not one penny came from the New York State Council. All this place has been built by the people who walked in with the bucks in their hand.

MM There’s really a demand.

JC It proves my point. It shows how powerful the public desire to use the media is. They walked in here and voted with their money. The cable company, all they have to do is push a little button next door and even that they screw up.

MM That goes back to the question of their responsibility to the public.

JC It’s attitude. The attitude has to change. Once they realize, once these large corporations like Time-Life realize the value of what these channels are doing to keep the system together for them, they’re going to drool all over the place. Then they won’t know what to do. Then they’re going to start wasting money on it. It’s going on right now. I mean, the IRTS [International Radio and Television Society] luncheon, you couldn’t even get in the place because it was so jammed because all the cable guys who are doing the satellite channels were all there. Turner was there, Hauser and all of ‘em were there, and they were just falling all over them because they’re all scared to death, and these same guys at this stage don’t know what the hell they’re doing either. Look at Ted Turner. Look at his superstation. What benefit is it except that the cable operators now can get over duplication by taking the satellite feed. He’s making a bloody fortune at it, but he’s not doing anything worth a hill of beans on that channel, really. Sure you can sell superstations. Why not.

MM I think the CNN is good sometimes if there is a big story that breaks—they can do comprehensive coverage.

JC Yeah, phenomenal. I like CNN on certain occasions.

MM It’s boring on days when there’s nothing happening. It’s also questionable whether there’s really nothing happening when the Pope isn’t being shot.

JC That’s another news problem: when you have a national service, you can’t get localism. So he’s stuck—he has Washington, N.Y., L.A., and that’s it. He can’t do much more than that.

MM Well, I think they could extend their international news coverage quite a bit.

JC That’s another whole application. If I was a superstation, I would immediately get out of local news, get out of national news and do only international.

MM That’d be great because nobody’s doing it.

JC Nobody’s doing it, and the opportunity is phenomenal. These countries spend a billion dollars a year in the U.S. to make the American people think nicely of them.

MM Trying to get their stuff out and it doesn’t get out.

JC Imagine the excitement there…they should all get together, buy time, draw straws for prime times and just do international programming on that one channel.

MM I think that’s a great idea.

JC Why not? The U.S. government might get a little uptight about it, but as long as you put a disclaimer saying that this programming is manufactured and propaganda from Germany, Japan, or around the world, wherever it comes from.

MM The thing is if that kind of cultural exchange were to exist for a prolonged period of time, you’d have to get past that stage where it was merely propaganda.

JC They would grow up.

MM So would we.

JC The first thing you’re going to see is a big tourist promo—then you’re going to see the big propaganda promo, then after, what they’d realize…

MM That they’ve got to say something.

JC Yeah, right because there are 55 channels or 110 channels. Hey, we’re just like short wave radio. We’re in there with everybody else.

MM Do you see this as a possible DBS application?

JC Right now there are so many transponders up there not being used. There’s nothing to be put on them.

MM Are you kidding?

JC I’m not kidding.

MM How come 10 of the 24 transponders on the RCA bird [SATCOM IV] were auctioned off at Parke-Bernet for a total of 92 million dollars? [Subsequently overruled by the FCC in favor of a rate schedule that will bring 130 million dollars for the same 10 transponders.]

JC Because they all see the potential. They all see the supply and demand table. But they don’t see the other side of supply and demand. Who’s going to make the product? I keep asking these guys. Do you know the guy from Pop network? Four transponders or three transponders, the guy can’t even pay his telephone bills. He has no product. He doesn’t know what to do with it. The only thing he bought was the right to have a transponder so that some other person who needs it has to rent it from him. How stupid can you get? And the only logic they can come up with is the low cost of transmission. Then you go over to the U.S.A. network; what do you get? Garden events and repeat product. Then you got CBS cable three hours a day times four, same product running over and over again for three days. And you know what, this honeymoon is not going to go on forever up on 6th Avenue, that money is running out, and the stockholders are going to say okay. You’re in cable television; you’re doing all these arts, and you spent the million too, where is the end of the tunnel, and guess what, there is no end of the tunnel. Everybody is beginning to realize the only way they’re going to pay for this cable service is you’re going to pay directly (pay per view). The subscribers are going to pay one way or the other.

MM Do you think there will be other services added on like computer access?

JC Bell has the computer business. They creamed that right out so fast it makes your head spin.

MM With this recent divestiture?

JC That’s what they’re waiting for. They’re doing it so nicely and neatly. They’re letting everybody, all the holders, make money, splitting them up and everything else. And they’re all ready to go. They’re all set. When they say tomorrow you guys are officially separated from each other there will be flares in the air because Ma Bell will be in. Listen to the Ma Bell lingo: we’d like to be in the data/software business, but it’s not real important; we just want our fair share of it. They’re going to wipe these guys out.

MM They’ve been working on it for the last 20 years.

JC It’s all set, every piece of design. The transistor they designed, 90 percent of the chips that were really reiterated were basically Bell designs. They’re not dummies.

MM They’ve hired tons of people.

JC Programmers have gone through here working for Bell Labs and they say you wouldn’t believe what they’re building over in NJ. They’re building huge spacious buildings for what? To package air? No way. Mainframes. The mainframes aren’t there because why go out and buy capital goods, but the structures are going up.

MM So as soon as they are fully divested…

JC Bang. You will have, they’ll come out, I guarantee you, for 10 or 20 bucks a month, a terminal right there in your home, hooked right to that Bell pair, and you won’t have to sit at a video text thing waiting for your turn. You can just dial right to that data bank, and you’re there.

Tags:
Technology
Television
Media studies
Mass media
BOMB 3
Spring 1982
The cover of BOMB 3
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