Categorized | Arts & Culture

The Local Access Zone

You are entering another dimension. A dimension of sight, sound and mind, of high school concerts, government meetings and puppets. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of the imagination… and a tight budget. There’s an informational slide and some classical music up ahead — you are now entering The Local Access Zone.
[tv]If you live off campus and have a cable subscription, chances are you’ve been here before. You may have happened upon it while traversing from the local network affiliates to ESPN or TLC. Maybe you were channel surfing one lazy Sunday and ended up here when nothing else was on. You may know it by other names. Maybe you refer to it as “the channels in the 20s,” but, in fact, this is a territory that defies such simplistic monikers. It is a realm of television stations of varying categories of access — education, government and public. It is the realm of such people such as Matt Ottinger, the telecommunications coordinator for Okemos Public Schools, who is also the host of WKAR’s QuizBusters. Much of Ottinger’s work involves the district’s access channel, The Okemos Channel (channel 26), which broadcasts school board meetings, district sporting events, concerts and student-made programs.
“Our mandate is to create programming and to present activities that are of interest to Okemos families, most specifically school families, but not exclusively so.”
On the government side of things is Lynn Meikle, station manager for HOM-TV, the Meridian Township access station. HOM-TV regularly broadcasts meetings of the township government, but as Meikle explained, the station’s original programming ranges from the local law enforcement show, “Beyond the Badge,” to the recently launched children’s show, “HOM-TV Fun Factory.”
Public access is a more free-form affair, where creative and production elements are left to local residents. Employees of East Lansing public access station WELM declined to comment due to negotiations with cable provider Comcast (more on that later), so in order to describe the public access mechanism, here’s a theoretical situation based on outside research and the informational slides shown during WELM’s non-programming hours:
Let’s say there’s this guy named Dwayne. Dwayne’s a cool guy, a youthful rock ‘n’ roller type, and he thinks he’s got a pretty good idea for a TV show. It’s a talk show of sorts, featuring himself and his friend Arthur (who likes to go by “Arth”) discussing the issues that most matter to them—music, local happenings, and, on occasion, attractive females. Dwayne and Arth need only contact WELM in order to use their facilities and get their show, which we’ll call “Dwayne’s Universe,\” on the air. And should their lack of television experience make our future access stars feel like they’re “going to ralph,” they can enroll in the station’s workshops on production and editing. And it’s all free. Schwing!
Knowing how it works is only part of understanding The Local Access Zone. To truly appreciate its depth and breadth, one must know its history, which according to Ottinger begins in 1975.
“That’s when cable was first coming into the area, and some very wise men, most of whom were professors at Michigan State University…convinced the cable company at the time to set aside a much larger variety of access channels than most communities realistically have,” he said. “And ever since then, there’s been pressure on the cable companies as what’s called the franchise agreement [a legal agreement between a cable company and a community, allowing the company to use the public right-of-way to string up cable lines and provide their service] comes due every few years, to continue to provide those stations.”
Ottinger also noted that originally East Lansing and Meridian Township were to receive distinct cable signals, and thus receive only the access channels that applied to their respective community. However, the signals eventually consolidated, allowing for all subscribers in the greater East Lansing area to receive all the access channels the area has to offer.
But it has been within only the last decade that this variety has been fully utilized. And while some of the government stations (ahem, East Lansing) remain underused, the three school districts—East Lansing, Haslett and Okemos—broadcast much of their own programming, while the college stations—MSU and Lansing Community College—play a range of original and re-broadcasted material.
“MSU uses their slots to rebroadcast PBS programming that they wouldn’t normally be able to offer on WKAR,” said Ottinger. “And LCC either has their own original programming or they show The Arts Channel. So they’re all being used, it’s not just running a bunch of text messages, and that’s what’s really impressive. I mean, it’s wonderful that we have it, it’s unique that we have it…but it’s not like they’re going to waste; we are providing content.”
We now know some of the minds that are creating and showing the content, but who belongs to the minds and eyes that receive it? Who are the souls that come looking for something unique, local and relatable? Who’s out here in The Local Access Zone?
“It’s real easy to assume that not many people watch,” Ottinger said. “My experience has been that that’s simply not the case, that it’s certainly a narrow audience that we’re programming to. If you talk about just Okemos families with school-aged children as our audience, we probably get an enormous percentage of that audience.”
Unfortunately, local access does not figure much into the Nielsen ratings, so in order to quantify their audience, access channels must rely on in-house surveys, word of mouth and viewer feedback. According to Meikle, viewers will be frank with the station when they notice a mistake.
“Feedback is always hard,” she said. “When a township board meeting doesn’t play correctly, they call.”
HOM-TV’s voicemail isn’t all negative messages, however. Meikle said “HOM-TV Fun Factory” has generated plenty of phone calls since its first broadcast in early March.
“Fun Factory” may be HOM-TV’s chance to grab viewers in the community who aren’t necessarily ensconced in the government goings-on of Meridian Township. The show features “Coach” Mike Devlin; his puppet sidekick, The Professor, and a studio audience of excitable elementary schoolers. Meikle divulged the reason why the kids in the first few episodes seem just short of being out of control:
\”Before the show starts, [Devlin] had them with these balloons, like whipping balloons around. I mean we had the whole thing filled with balloons. I mean they were hyped-up kids, all over the place.”
With call-and-response audience participation and guests that include local animal experts and children’s authors, “HOM-TV Fun Factory” harkens back to the days when Howdy Doody and Bozo the Clown ruled the kiddie-oriented airwaves. While it doesn’t have the hipster-baiting potential of Washington, DC’s, “Pancake Mountain,” it’s still a pretty entertaining viewing experience.
Of course, no discussion of hit local television series’ would be complete without a mention of The Okemos Channel’s student-made dramatic series “Anything But Ordinary.” Created by then-Okemos High School senior Christin Vasilenko during the 2003-04 school year, the show revolved around three female protagonists in their freshmen year of college.
“The show was basically about them trying to figure out their relationships with each other, their relationships to guys, just figure out their lives, figure out who they were and what what they wanted out of college,” Vasilenko, now an English sophomore at MSU, said. “And also there was the love story between the next-door neighbor and basically all the girls had some in-ter-tangling with their quirky neighbor guy. It was just a silly show to make people laugh.”
Ottinger swelled with pride when talking about the phenomenon the show created in its six-episode run.
“That’s wonderful stuff, and people watched it. People who weren’t in Okemos, who didn’t have any idea who these kids were, watched ‘Anything But Ordinary,\’” he said. “That was by far the most popular thing we ever showed.”[remote]
When the show first aired, students at Okemos would stop Vasilenko in the hallways to sing the show’s praises. As time went on and more people got the chance to see the show, Vasilenko and her cast found themselves being recognized on the streets of East Lansing.
“And we’re like, ‘Wow, you still remember it!” she said. “So it was very cool and it got us noticed and it was just neat that people appreciated it and appreciated the work that got put into it.”
Vasilenko said “Anything But Ordinary” proved more popular than any other Okemos Chan-nel program because a broader audience could relate to it. However, she still has to wonder as to how the show became a Facebook-group-spawning cult success at MSU.
“That I do not know…people will tell us all the drinking games they made up to [the show] and I think they just like it,” she said. “It’s about college kids, even though I wrote it in high school, so I really didn’t know what I was talking about. But I think they enjoy having it be about college and supposed college experiences. I think it’s just funny, and they like to watch it and laugh at it and have a good time.”
“We initially thought, ‘We’re just making this show for fun, our parents and our friends will watch it, but we were just amazed that people were that into it that they would make that group,” Vasilenko said. It was really cool.”
Although “Anything But Ordinary” has been taken out of regular rotation on The Okemos Channel, Ottinger said the DVD of the show (available from the station for $20) is always on standby for broadcast.
“That thing we always keep in our back pocket,” he said. “During certain times of year where it’s a little bit slower, we’ll pop it on. We don’t really have a set time for it, but it’s something we keep, it’s something we know people like.”
Is there life beyond local access? Do those involved in local access dream of bigger studios, bigger productions, bigger audiences? Submitted for your approval: Lynn Meikle, a station manager quite content with her station in life.
“I like it here,” she said. “I don’t have any aspirations at the moment to move on, because the station is still growing, it’s something new all the time and we’re constantly coming up with new programs…Access is probably one of those jobs that you just kind of fall into. When you’re looking for a job, you apply everywhere, and if you can find a job in access, it’s great, because it’s something that’s a little bit out of the ordinary. You know, you don’t necessarily think of working in access, but once you start working in access you understand that whether it’s public, educational, or government television, you’re providing a service to the community, and you’re allowing people to have a voice in their community…”
It’s a service that could only be provided in one place. You guessed it, The Local Access Zone.

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