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Even Among a Sea of Cable Channels and the Explosion of YouTube, Public Access Remains Vital

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New York City -- In the master control room, four screens reveal what's currently showing on the four stations of the Manhattan Neighborhood Network (MNN). On the first one, a teenager in a wife-beater lip syncs to "Singin' in the Rain," rain drops plopping on his nose as he leap-frogs over a construction barrel where Gene Kelly swung around a street lamp in the classic movie. Beside him, a Neil Young look-alike hunches over in his seat as he lets his out-of-tune guitar wail. On the third screen, a gospel choir belts out a refrain, white robes swishing as they step-touch and clap. On the final screen, a group of Serbian twenty-somethings does a folkdance that looks like Riverdance on Prozac.

It's just a normal day at MNN -- the nation's premiere public access station that broadcasts over 1,200 shows a week on four channels in New York City. As the staff busily makes last-minute arrangements for a street carnival they're throwing to celebrate the network's 15th anniversary (Saturday, Sept. 15th from 1 to 6p.m. on East 104th Street between Lexington and 3rd Avenues), public access has never looked better. Digital camera prices have plummeted and editing equipment comes standard on almost every personal computer. Meaning that access shows have come a long way from what Wayne's World once parodied.

Demand for shows on MNN is at an all-time high. "Public access was in many ways the original YouTube," says MNN's executive director Dan Coughlin. "What we're seeing is a reawakening of interest -- in 2006, we had our most successful year ever in terms of studio use, camera use, and editing equipment."

But the technology sword cuts both ways. When public access began in New York, there were four public access channels to 13 commercial cable channels. Today, as anyone who scrolls the upper echelons of the TV Guide Channel knows, cable options extend way past 1000. Back in the day, there was a 30 percent chance that a cable watcher would stumble upon MNN. Now, those chances are about .2 percent.

While MNN has about 600,000 viewers a month, YouTube gets 20-million users in the same time period. For people hoping to catapult themselves to stardom (Lonelygirl15, anyone?), YouTube seems like the obvious place to turn. MNN director of programming, Vickie Kereszi, does occasionally think about this. "This year, we had three shows withdraw and go to YouTube, which isn't bad," she explains. "But we don't know how many are going straight to YouTube that would have used us as an outlet before."

To stay relevant to the internet generation, MNN is working hard to bring teenagers and twenty-somethings into the fold. In 2000, MNN launched Youth Channel to provide equipment, training and resources to New Yorkers ages 12 through 25 who want to create their own shows. "New York prides itself on being the media capital of the world, but doesn't often give young people a chance to be a part of that," says Cynthia Carrion, the director of Youth Channel.

Youth Channel began with a staff of one, but has grown steadily over the years. It is now a 20-hour block of shows that airs on Time Warner Cable channel 34 (RCN 82) from Saturday through Monday. And MNN is currently in negotiations to make Youth Channel a full-fledged fifth station.

Youth Channel is also getting a new homebase--MNN recently acquired the East Harlem Firehouse on 104th street (the site of Saturday's block party) and will spend the next year tricking it out with high-tech television studios, state-of-the-art editing equipment and more. Two floors of the building will be dedicated to Youth Channel. "We're excited to be a resource in the rich uptown community, because the higher up you go in Manhattan, there becomes a dearth of services," says Carrion. "What kids are seeing now on MTV isn't really reflecting them--it's not speaking to low-income, urban youth. Youth Channel really speak to their reality. It's about getting more voices out there."

In the late 90s, big-budget stations known for edgy programming were paying a lot of attention to public access. In 1996, MTV picked up Squirt TV, an MNN show started by then 14-year-old Jake Fogelnest, who interviewed guests like the Beastie Boys and Janeane Garofalo in his bedroom. The next year, another MNN show, Beyond Vaudeville, got a chance under the new name Oddville, MTV -- a freak-show on camera, with people eating lightbulbs and showing off third nipples.

In 1997, an MTV big-whig even told Variety, "Watching MNN is like going to a comedy club to check out the new acts. It's an open-mic night for broadcasting." But in the new, extra-cluttered media landscape, it's hard to tell whether the networks are still watching.

If they are, one MNNer seems especially ripe to make the leap into mainstream television -- like Tom Green, Bobby Flay, Rupaul and, um, Elvira. Lori Harfenist's show, The Resident, is one of the highest rated on MNN. In a recent episode, she scurried through Times Square, smiling as she thrust a microphone in the face of anyone willing to be interviewed. With her brunette high-ponytail, hoop earrings, and a beauty mark, she looked vaguely like Cindy Crawford.

She had also stuffed her bra. "What do you think about fake boobs?" she asked a 20-something guy with an afro.

"They suck, they suck, they suck!" he said, shaking his head.

"Nah," says another young guy in a baseball cap. "Be real with yourself."

Cut to Harfenist standing beside a 50-something white businessman in a polo shirt. "What do you think of plastic surgery?" she asked.

"I love it. It improves the look of this country," he said. It's the kind of subtle sociological critique she does best.

Another show potentially destined for more is Knit Bootie, which has gained cult status over its 10-year run. Knit Bootie features old commercial footage set to music straight out of Twin Peaks. A mainstay of the show is footage creator Tom Sexton shot out of his apartment window on Sullivan Street -- the camera pans slowly as it follows women walking down the street. The result is half voyeuristic-fun, and half stalker-creepy.

A few years ago, The Village Voice dubbed Roboshithead "the best public access show in New York." Created by Chuck Stern (a full-time MNN employee) and a man who wished to remain anonymous, it's like a much more dismal version of the Upright Citizens Brigade. In the episode "Maximum Capacity," for example, four strangers are stuck in an elevator for 935 million years. It's also the first show to take advantage of MNN's no-censorship policy and put a curse word in the title.

And yet another MNNer with mainstream potential -- 20-year-old Eugene Jones, who has a lead role in Alan Ball's new movie, Nothing is Perfect. Jones got an internship with Youth Channel when he was 17, and fell in love with the station's hands-on approach to teaching television production. His show, Sketch City, will premiere in a few weeks and is an addictive mix of improv, comedy, spoken word and rap -- a smarter version of Wild N' Out. "Anybody can put anything on YouTube. But MNN gives you an idea of how television works," says Jones. "You pick the slot, get the show in a certain time, you have to have a minute of black, 28-minutes, a minute of black. It shows you the structure. Everything I learned, I'm gonna utilize."

While Knit Bootie and Roboshithead also began primarily as MNN shows, Harfenist started The Resident online and later decided to move it to public access. She says that the one-two punch of airing full episodes on MNN and snippets online is perfect. "YouTube's feedback is instant and you can get hundreds of comments on one segment. On MNN, if 10 people call or write, it's a good show," she explains. "But television is my first love. Having a weekly show is something I'm proud of. It's my little corner of my favorite medium."

That is exactly why public access was created in the first place. In the late '60s, NYU film professor George Stoney had the idea to use the burgeoning cable system to get his films seen. Other people around the country were thinking the same thing. "Some say the first public access was in Pennsylvania where a mom and pop put up an antennae. Some say it was in Colorado," he says. Stoney began the first official public access in New York in 1971. By 1972, it became FCC law that cable providers fund public access channels in major television markets.

Public access still works this way -- cable providers like Time Warner and RCN pay "rent" to the community by providing them with channels for public use. MNN's yearly budget is 3.7 million, 90 percent of it coming from the cable companies. The programming is a trippy hodgepodge, running the gamut from talk shows to cooking, music videos to soft-core porn, church services to sketch comedy, plus a heavy chunk of local news. The only rule (besides, of course, those outlined in the First Amendment) is that you can't sell anything -- it's completely non-commercial television. Which means no muting commercials required.

Now in his '80s, Stoney still sits on MNN's board of directors. "When you watch, it's what you'd see getting on a subway car," he says. "It's different races, and 25 percent of it is in other languages. It gives groups the chance to have their concerns broadcast."

For years, the four stations of MNN have been a jumble. But as part of the 15th anniversary celebration, this weekend, each channel will shift to distinct themes. MNN 1 (TWC 34/RCN 82) is morphing into the Community Channel, where viewers will find local news, public affairs shows and Youth Channel. MNN 2 (TWC 56/RCN 83) will become the Lifestyles Channel, which will air shows about music, art and entertainment. MNN 3 (TWC 57/RCN 84) will become the Spiritual Channel, featuring shows on a religious tip. And MNN 4 (TWC 67/RCN 85) will house the Culture Channel.

And perhaps it is possible for YouTube and public access to walk hand-in-hand into the sunset. Case in point -- Stairway to Stardom, a low budget version of Star Search that ran on in the 80s. The show was lost in obscurity, but now clips have started resurfacing on YouTube. They're the kind of cringe-worthy bits that get mass-emailed.

One of the most popular Stairway to Stardom resurrections is rapper B.J. the Messenger. In a clip from 1987, he wears a red ski mask over his face and a huge gold chain around his neck. "You smoking crack today/ Wasting your life away/ You better stop and listen to my heavy rap today/ You're a crackhead/ Leave, leave, leave it alone," he spits as friends dance in the background. Twenty years later, B.J. is just now getting his chance at public-access induced fame -- he's up to 20,000 views on YouTube.