No matter what the channel, late-night television is pretty hit-or-miss. Indeed, primetime television can be pretty hit-or-miss. When it comes to Madison's WYOU - the city's 36-year-old, now seriously endangered public access station - the programs at any hour often manage to be both at the same time.
What, for instance, shall I make of Snodgraz Synima (Friday, 11 p.m.)? The night I'm watching, the show features a 1987 movie from Hong Kong called Golden Ninja Invasion - which, yes, sounds awesome, and in fact is described by a reviewer online as "one of the most violent ninja flicks I've seen." Bloody martial arts movies are a trusted staple of the wee-hours viewing diet, so this should be a clear hit.
On the other hand, throughout the movie a legend runs across the upper left corner of the screen urging viewers to call the number displayed and speak to the show's hosts. I cannot fathom why I should; I also cannot call and learn why, because my wife is asleep in our tiny house. The whole time I watch Golden Ninja Invasion, flipping back and forth from it to other channels, I don't see the Snodgraz hosts onscreen, so I'm not sure why I would phone them. Just to chat?
When I do some research the following Monday, I learn that host Phillip Snodgraz and his cohorts do not actually ever appear onscreen, but that they do occasionally offer audio commentary over the top of the film they're showing, and allow viewers to contribute to the discussion by phone, as well. That wasn't clear to me while I was watching, partly because I was very tired and partly because the commentary is sporadic, rather than constant - and when the whole movie consists of poorly overdubbed dialogue, it's difficult to notice another voice chiming in from time to time.
That sort of dearth of context makes a lot of public access shows frustrating to watch, while simultaneously lending them an awkward charm. But of course, if many of WYOU's programs are gawky and amateurish - well, that's what they're supposed to be. The station's whole raison d'être is to give ordinary citizens, rather than television professionals, a platform to reach the cable-viewing audience.
The problem for WYOU - in dire straits after its primary funding was halved by the city this year, and facing no funding in 2011 - is finding a way to keep putting those ordinary citizens on the air, in an overcrowded media environment where even the most polished fare can struggle to maintain an audience.
In a way, WYOU's situation is not unlike one of its most popular shows.
Professionally produced in New York City, Democracy Now! (Monday-Friday, 6 p.m.) delivers a crunchy, nutritious take on the daily news free of what you might call the irresponsible frivolity that so much of the mainstream fourth estate suffers from. It makes for compelling television, where talking heads are able to discuss complex subjects at something more like the length they deserve and ask common-sense questions that reporters on commercial networks shy away from.
It's basically what a lot of us think all our news should look more like - in theory. In reality, of course, many of us pay lip service to the value of responsible journalism and go on tuning in to the commercial networks. We might appreciate what Democracy Now! is doing in principle, but when it comes to practice, our loyalties tend to lie, almost reflexively, with its big corporate competitors.
Similarly, the argument for supporting WYOU hinges more on principle than on results in a cut-and-dried sense.
The station is supported mainly by PEG fees, which are paid by cable providers to fund public, educational and government access television. Essentially, the idea is that because the providers are using public rights-of-way to lay their cables, they also need to pay for a way for citizens and public institutions to use those utilities. If you're a cable subscriber, you pay probably less than a buck a month to keep the service - and the possibility that you yourself might use it to reach fellow viewers - alive.
Now, sure, most citizens likely won't ever make use of WYOU's production facilities. However, they might be in a play or concert that gets recorded and broadcast by one of the station's producers. Or they might tune in to see a replay of a speech or presentation made in Madison earlier in the year. Or they might just want to watch a cheesy ninja movie.
But 2007's Act 42 - the main purpose of which was to shift control of Wisconsin's cable franchises from municipalities to the state - sets a sunset date of Jan. 1, 2011, on PEG fees. That means WYOU, which already received only around $70,000 in PEG money this year, rather than the approximately $140,000 it's typically been allocated this century, will have to rely entirely on membership fees, donations and tuition from videography and editing classes to pay its three full-time employees and cover equipment and other costs. It could go the way of the public access channel in Wausau, which went dark on Jan. 31, though WYOU executive director Barbara Bolan hasn't thrown in the towel yet.
Bolan is hopeful despite the station's grim financial future, and its having been moved from its prominent spot on Channel 4 to the atmospheric regions of the lineup - Channels 95 and 991 for Charter Communications standard and digital subscribers, and buried behind a series of menus on AT&T's U-Verse. "We have to be smart and forward-thinking about what we can provide that benefits the community of Madison, and not just be an organization that's constantly saying, 'Oh! We're running out of money!'"
WYOU's best shot lies in a bill, submitted by state Rep. Gary Hebl, that focuses on removing the sunset date on PEG fees, returning PEG channels to more accessible spots in the lineup and requiring cable providers to pay for access channel equipment upgrades if the providers change technologies. The station is also moving to new, cheaper digs and trying to acquire hard drive space so it can save and stream programs on demand.
Being smart and forward-thinking is easier said than done. Bolan and her colleagues can't just change their programming to better suit viewers' tastes, because that would run counter to WYOU's mission. The station's goal is less to attract a steady viewership than to offer another window into the community that's available to people when they need it.
How clear that window is varies from show to show. The hour-long Unarius (Thursday, 10 a.m.), not a local production, epitomizes the stereotypical low end of public access TV. The organization behind the program "purports to advance a new interdimensional science of life based upon fourth-dimensional physics principles." A half-baked blend of Star Trek and Scientology, with considerably worse costumes and dialogue than the former and an even dippier philosophy than the latter, the show's only substantial accomplishment is being so bad it's good (although it's pretty darn great at that).
I have similar feelings about DW's Show (Friday, 1:30 a.m.; Saturday, 1 a.m.), which follows Snodgraz Synima. Watching host D.W. Wanberg sound off on "Ron Emanuel," who's got "some sort of a job with Obama," for five minutes - and then wonder aloud how he's going to fill up the rest of the half-hour - is as cringe-inducing as The Office at its best. Yes, in case you were wondering, some of the other 25 minutes do involve Wanberg cooing to his cat on this particular night. I'm still not sure if he's sincere or an ingenious performance artist.
The Dan Potacke Show (Friday, 12:30 a.m.; Saturday, 2 a.m.) is more clear-cut (if still zany) comedy, and might be where public access really makes sense as a medium. Local comic Potacke is already putting on his self-proclaimed "most electrifying live talk show ever seen on a Monday afternoon in Madison" onstage at the Frequency, so he might as well record it and put it on TV, too.
Whether Potacke is consistently funny is another question, but at least he's making an obvious effort with his contribution. Anyone who wants to learn more can Google him and read his blog.
Just as the lack of context around Snodgraz Synima bugged me, the fact that Potacke has provided something online immediately endears him to me. The schedule of a station like WYOU can be such a mixed bag that it's often not readily apparent what we're seeing, or why. Maintaining a regularly updated blog or website for a show provides extra information that gives you an idea of what you're watching. An example is the website accompanying UW-Madison professor Clint Sprott's The Wonders of Physics (Wednesday, 3 p.m.) - a dorky but good-natured educational show that really does teach, or at least re-teach, me some things about inertia.
But take two good locally produced shows I see on WYOU: Beerpocalypse Now (Tuesday, 10:30 p.m.; Saturday, 1:30 a.m.; Wednesday, 4:30 a.m.), for beer lovers, by beer lovers; and RHM Shots World Traveler (Wednesday, 12:30 p.m.; Friday, 6:30 a.m.; Saturday, 11:30 a.m.), a travel show recorded and edited entirely by producer Richard H. Mueller. In the 21st century, if I'm going to watch something like either, I'd really like to know more about it. But there's not much information about the shows on the web.
Then there's the broadcast of Madison Progressive Voices (Monday, 6:30 a.m.; Saturday, 3:30 p.m.; Thursday, 5 p.m.). I want to know who's giving a speech I get engrossed in. It turns out it's Jeremy Scahill, a writer for The Nation, but I have to surf the web to find out, because his name isn't shown on the screen. In other words, the content of the show is absolutely fine, but it lacks the cues and accoutrements that make television more easily comprehensible. Why not break long shows up - not with commercials, obviously, but with brief intermissions that explain a little bit about what we're seeing? "You're watching...."
In general, if WYOU misses one thing more often than it hits, it's not production quality - that's quite good in a number of cases, and highly forgivable in others - but just that even the best shows often seem more like personal projects than like they were crafted with much thought given to the audience. That's understandable - part of a public access station's mission is simply to teach the basics of television production, so showcasing practical skills may take precedence over other considerations.
On the other hand, amateurs or not, if producers want people to see their shows, they'll be well served to think about those people.