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Public-access TV gains cachet ... and new viewers

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• In Concord, Mass., public-access shows range from "Politically Incorrectable," a show on local politics to "Reel Talk," a movie-review show.

Alternative to regular TV

Cities are not required to have a public-access television station. The cable act does stipulate that local cable operators must provide 5 percent of their local annual revenues to communities that do set up a local channel. While the makeup of cable-access channels differs from city to city, it's not unusual for communities to set up nonprofit corporations to operate cable access studios.

While Neilson, the TV ratings corporation, doesn't study ratings for cable-access channels, experts say there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that overall viewership of public-access television is up. From Portland, Ore., to Cobb County, Ga., dozens of shiny new public studios have sprung up in recent years, rivaling even the resources of local TV networks - and replacing the endemic blurry picture with crisp colors and well-tuned sound.

"Public access is actually a hot commodity these days," says Cheryl Luenza of the Media Action Project in Washington. "In fact, interest in this very local kind of programming is only increasing as we see more consolidation of media at the commercial level. People are beginning to crave something different, something that's not so 'network.' "

This burst of underground TV programming comes, some experts say, at a time when Americans are growing tired of the "MTV edit," the quick-cut, go-for the-throat programming that dominates the mass-market stations today. Instead, channel hoppers are tuning into shows like "Driveways of the Rich and Famous," a public-access show in Hollywood. With no commercial pressure to succeed - and responsible only to local decency standards - cable access, TV critics say, has largely lived up to its hope of becoming a town square of the TV age.

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