The perils (and pleasures) of public access: Getting to know MATA Community Media
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As an interested observer of the American media landscape, as well as a fan of the offbeat and bizarre, I’ve always had a de facto love for public access TV. But while I was always glad it was there, I’d never actually sat down and watched it. In an era when most people take to YouTube to broadcast themselves, and the modes of television consumption are rapidly changing, one has to wonder how long public access—which has often encountered opposition from municipalities and service providers—can remain a viable enterprise. What better time, then, to jump in feet first and get to know this strange little corner of your cable package?
First, a little background: Here in Milwaukee, public access is run by a non-profit organization called MATA Community Media, which was chartered by the state in 1984 to provide training, facilities, and equipment to any individuals or groups interested in creating their own television program, with the results being broadcast on Time Warner Cable channels 14 and 96. Though it’s won several awards over the years, MCM’s main claim to fame has been helping launch the career of George Tillman Jr., the Milwaukee native who went on to direct 1997’s Soul Food and produce the Barbershop franchise, among other things.
When you actually tune in, the first thing you’re likely to find is talk, and not all of it scintillating. A big reason people get involved in MCM is to foster awareness and inspire conversation about topics they’re passionate about, whether it’s archeology, psychology, race, religion, local politics, or local sports. That they care very much about their respective fields is obvious, but most of these programs are mind-numbingly boring (lacking what people in the business call “zazz.”) Still, I did get a kick out of the hosts of the baseball chat show, the Brew Crew Review, telling people to find them on Facebook, before unanimously agreeing that the social network was a stupid waste of time.
I was aware going in that MCM was the Milwaukee home of Kenosha’s Dr. Destruction and his Crimson Theatre, so I was sure there would be more to public access than dull conversation. A good schedule removes a lot of the guesswork, but that basic information is remarkably inaccessible; the TWC guide simply says “Public Access” around the clock, and the links on the MCM websites are often broken; it’s not until you find its Facebook page that you’re able to examine its daily offerings and plan your viewing.
Once that piece of the puzzle falls into place, you may want to start setting your DVR (even if Time Warner annoyingly separates the programming into arbitrary two-hour chunks), since there’s plenty of intriguingly odd things syndicated from other public channels, pulled from the public domain, or produced right in our own back yard. In addition to Dr. Destruction, there are three other trash-cinema programs, Kooky Spooky Theatre, Midnite Mausoleum, and Cinema Insomnia, just in case you’re not getting your recommended dosage of dry ice and monster makeup. There’s also a fair amount of music programming, including performances by local bands like The Fatty Acids and Kings Go Forth, a blues-centric revue called EC’s Juke Joint, and at least two shows playing underground street rap videos, Mill Street TV and The Independent Scene.
The typical lineup runs the gamut from downright amazing to totally insane. There’s a “lost” interview with Bruce Lee; Paranormal Generation, a local show that purports to demonstrate “what a real ghost hunt looks like” (spoiler: it looks a lot like people wandering around in the dark); and Whaziznamez 50, wherein the titular artist muses on creativity and sometimes shows off his CGI erotica. The variety is a lot of fun, especially along with the utterly random between-show bumpers consisting of old cartoons, amateurish promos, and PSAs made by elementary school kids. (One of my favorites basically claimed that playing GTA will turn you into a remorseless killer.)
The only thing that unites all of this off-the-wall diversity is persistent technical difficulties. Sometimes problems arise when producers fail to work the equipment properly (sound seems particularly difficult), but other flaws are more systematic. Even though there’s a full list of programming for the station, channel 96 seems to be just plain off the air, and sometimes there are scheduling conflicts that cause shows to abruptly cut off, like when I invested an hour in the 1929 Douglas Fairbanks feature The Iron Mask, only to miss out on the ending. Somehow, though, the complete lack of professionalism makes the whole thing feel more charming, a plucky alternative to commercial TV’s unrelenting slickness.
In the end, MCM does a good job of reflecting Milwaukee’s diverse viewpoints, passions, and personalities, providing a platform and educational resource for activists, advocacy groups, and faith-based organizations, as well as a place for B-movie buffs, music fans, and people who, frankly, are just a bit nutty. The format may be headed for obsolescence thanks to the Internet—you can find some of these shows on YouTube already—but for now, public access simply presses on, competing for attention with hundreds of other channels and platforms, boasting little in its favor other than the enthusiasm of its volunteers. Whether or not it appeals to you, there’s something at once inspiring and tragic in the way it has clung to its bit of bandwidth. The amount of creativity, tenacity, and heart on display at the very least deserves a moment’s consideration before changing the channel.