What does a smart but tiny television station do when it realizes nobody's watching? It reinvents itself by taking on a second life in an entirely different medium.
This month, the Peralta Community Colleges cable station, formerly known as PCTV, is officially redubbing itself "peralta.TV" and launching its new, matching Web site. Rather than fiddling with the cable box or waiting for the show they like to come on at 10 p.m. on a Friday, viewers can simply download shows for free.
For years, the station has struggled to connect with its audience. It has a limited distribution range, reaching only 121,682 cable-subscriber homes on Channel 27 or 28. Only five cities can tune in -- Alameda, Berkeley, Emeryville, Oakland, and Piedmont. Even cities like Albany, which is technically within the community college district, can't get the signal. Forget San Francisco, or even Hayward.
The station doesn't have enough money to commission Nielsen ratings or viewer surveys, but Jeff Heyman, the Peralta administrator who oversees the station, suspects they're mostly late-night channel surfers and people who tune in for educational telecourses. The station's main mission is educational, so for the last decade or so it has dedicated most of its airtime to second-run PBS shows and distance-learning courses produced elsewhere and bought off-the-shelf. That's a boon to students who can't attend classes in person, but let's face it: If you're not currently enrolled in "Intro to Marketing" or "Business and the Law," the latest cheesy American Idol knockoff may seem pretty hot by comparison.
It wasn't always that way. When the Peralta station went on the air in 1981, it was the first student-run cable television station in the United States. In addition to telecourses, it carried original, student-produced shows, and promptly developed what Heyman calls "some notoriety for being this very progressive, sort of radical, Berkeley-Oakland lefty California stuff."
Then came the beginning of the end, or what might better be called the Nude Interpretive Dancing Incident of 1991. As part of a video festival, the station broadcast a tape of ten nekkid folks cavorting (tastefully, we're informed) on a gold-leaf floor. Nudity on cable TV isn't illegal, and the station didn't receive community complaints, but the event did garner some embarrassing press coverage. Within a year, the station had new policies that restricted sensitive material and a new, less artsy administrator who propelled the station toward a narrower educational focus. By 1994, telecourses reigned supreme and student participants were supplanted by a small group of paid professionals. The only content produced in-house was a monthly half-hour program about ... Peralta educational programs. During a decade in which student filmmaking and multimedia were becoming more accessible and exciting art forms around the nation, the station's equipment mostly collected dust.
The new guard at peralta.TV wants the station to get back to its innovative roots without compromising its educational mission, and to attract a new audience that isn't limited by broadcast range and time constraints. Telecourses, after all, need to be offered consistently and frequently -- and it's hard to program around them. So, Step 1: Create hip shows. Step 2: Webcast.
Actually, there also had to be a Step 0.5: Buy equipment manufactured in the current millennium. "We went from 1980s technology into the digital era," Heyman says. That accomplished, the station dipped its toes back into original programming by airing live political chat shows and election night coverage during the 2004 and 2005 elections. That went well, so now the station has launched a handful of new original programs, including two weekly chat shows and an international music video-clip show. Discussions on Talk Back run the gamut from Bay Area fashion to local art, while Rites of Passage is a refreshingly straightforward chat about young women's issues. Burnett Walton, host of the international music-vid show Windows to the World, presents a lively compilation of the latest Brazilian, French, or Danish hip-hop or Jamaican reggae videos, and hopes to eventually incorporate live footage and interviews his crew will film when artists come to town. "I didn't want to do just the normal MTV, VH1 show, because everybody's doing that," Walton says. "Unless you have a satellite dish, you don't see any of these artists." The station also is picking up a syndicated Bay Area favorite -- the alternative news program Democracy Now!
But the original program most likely to push the station's own boundaries is Sierra at Large, a dreamy thirty-minute "puzzle show" created by Concord video artist Sierra Choi. The six-episode series, which debuted this January and is now in re-reruns, breaks pretty much all of episodic TV's rules: It takes its cues from French new wave cinema and Ingmar Bergman, its plot is diffuse at best, it toys with time, and the main character, played by Choi herself, may or may not exist. "I didn't want there to be a specific formula to the show, and I didn't want there to be a quick resolution after thirty minutes, or any of these other things that we associate with television," she says. "I wanted it to be more of a work in progress. I didn't intend it to be sort of like this enigma, but I also feel it's important to sort of put work out there in which it's not necessary to have to explain everything. I wanted people to view it multiple times or view episodes out of sequence. I didn't want there to be this very easy progression towards the first act, second act, third act."
Nonlinear programming may be a problem for conventional TV, but not for Web TV, where viewers can download what they like and re-watch episodes as often as they want. The station's new Web site connects users to show downloads and supplies an RSS feed that will automatically update viewers when new episodes are available. "It gets rid of that whole appointment-viewing situation," says Josh Wolf, the 23-year-old San Francisco filmmaker the station has hired to do marketing and public outreach.
After all, who wants to schedule in regular TV viewing anymore? And who can afford TiVo? Not students, certainly, and the station wants to draw them back in. Telecourses, too, eventually will be downloadable, and Heyman hopes to set up a podcasting class next year at Laney College, and encourage its students to post their work to the Web site. He also envisions eventually using the station as a sort of overnight Internet radio station when regular TV programming is off the air -- setting up a Webcam in the studio and letting DJs play music and interview guests over the Web feed until sunrise.
"Television was supposed to be this democratic medium, a sort of forum for the public, but I think in our contemporary era the Internet has kind of substituted that," Choi says. In fact, Wolf concurs, mainstream TV is now playing catch-up with all the kids who spent the last few years learning to work a digital camcorder and create their own video blogs. "Prior to this you needed to have a broadcast antenna, you needed this giant studio -- now anyone with an Internet connection can be their own TV station," Wolf says, noting that networks like NBC, ABC, and the Sci-Fi Channel are trying to win back Internet users by selling show downloads through Apple's iTunes music store for $1.99.
Peralta.TV is, of course, free. It's local, inventive, highly unscripted, and populated by people you're likely to run into on the street -- the chat show hosts, some of them still in braces, tend to get the giggles. Yet somehow they may just convince you to start watching more TV without watching more ... television.
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