Raul Marroquin on Thu, 18 Feb 1999 11:32:41 +0100 (CET)


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<nettime> local media & public access


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                                   /---/      LOCAL MEDIA - PUBLIC ACCESS
                                  /~~~/                   &
                                 /~~~/            AMSTERDAM UTOPIA
                                /~~~/
                               /~~~/
                              /~~~/    Inexperienced managenment and
Incompetent
                             /~~~/     Politicians as the Two Main
Components of
                            /~~~/      "The Fatal Injection" used to Terminate
                           /___/      Tactical Television Programming in
Amsterdam
                           \__/
                            /              A text for the reader of the N5M3
                           /            By Idzarda Lindenbergh & Raul
Marroquin
                          /               Amsterdam Rotterdam February 1999
                         /
                        /
                      `  '

Local Media - Public Access and the Amsterdam Utopia
----- -----   ------ ------ --- --- --------- ------

Inexperienced Management and Incompetent Politicians as the Two Main
Components of "the Fatal Injection" to Terminate Tactical Television
Programming in Amsterdam.

A text for the reader of the N5M3
By Idzarda Lindenbergh & Raul Marroquin
Amsterdam / Rotterdam. February 1999.

It is a fact that the Netherlands, and Amsterdam in particular, have
played a very important role in the development of public access and local
media; this is primarily because the Netherlands was the first country in
Europe to be wired up with cable in the early 70s and since those days
local media and public access have played a very important role in the
daily life of many Dutch communities.

The Amsterdam Situation

Amsterdam local radio and television are an integral part of the day to
day live of its citizens and the developments that have taken place in the
past twenty years have set an example for the rest of the world. From
self-taught, individual and collective "neighborhood" type of initiatives
in the early 70s. the Amsterdam local media developed through the years
into a basic, but yet complex, flexible and sophisticated set up that
ended up in what is known as Salto (Amsterdam Foundation for Local
Television) founded in 1985 and responsible for the programming of: -A
public access: station: "Open Kanaal" (Open Channel, the oldest of all,
operating since 1984) -A commercial, local/regional television station:
"AT5" (since 1992) -A special interest station "A1" (Amsterdam One, that
was inaugurated with the opening of the N5M in 1996) and the production
and programming of 5 radio stations that cater for the wide variety of
inhabitants living in Amsterdam's metropolitan area.

Local Television

As far as television is concerned, there are two particular interest
groups that played a major role in the developments that brought things to
the present situation: the pirates / squatters / activists and the visual
artists working with media: Staats T.V./ Rabotnic 1985, Time Base Arts
Television 1987, De Hoeksteen Live! and later Park T.V., Myster Media and
many others.
Rabotnik, and artist initiative, operated since 1982 as a pirate, Staats
T.V. cablecasts since 1985 and artists work for local television dates
back to the mid seventies when De Appel Foundation organized events for
live television from the LOB, the first cable network in the outskirts of
Amsterdam.
Artists and activists were latter joined by others segments of the
community that are part of the colorful and multiphasetic conformation of
Amsterdam: Ethnic Minorities, High School and University Students, Senior
Citizens, Religious Sects, Homosexual and Lesbian Activists, etc. are
among the local programmers.
By the time that Salto had become a decade old, it was already a unique,
exceptional place that generated mature, as well as, very innovative
political, financial and cultural programming that, for the first time in
the history of local media, had not only local influence but also
regional, national and international.
Some of the components that made Salto's programming so unique were
content, editorial quality and plenty of time available to ventilate
issues. Participants were not longer limited to sound bytes that are
supposed to be spit out in 8 minute segments, but in stead, had hours for
debate. In several cases interviews went for as long as two hours, those
interested in the subject could followed them at ease, those not
interested, could switch to other channels, no pressures from the ratings.

One of the secrets for the success of Amsterdam's live, tactical
television programming is that it was produced with consumer equipment, in
other words, electric appliances combined with outdated, discarded office
and industrial equipment. By limiting themselves to the bare minimum,
local programmers were never tempted by state of the art technology and
because of that, never had to confront the pressures of fund raising and
investment in hardware or deals and concessions with sponsors. It is also
a fact that when using consumer, second hand technology, there is no
training is required for those operating the equipment. Any one can use a
camcorder.

Breaking Away from Linear Programming

Flexibility and support from Salto through most of the 90s encouraged
programmers to break a way from linear programming. Live television was
generated permanently at any available time slot. Thousands and thousands
of extra hours were produced during the local and national elections in
1994 and 1998 as well as for local referenda. Live local television was
there at all times, day and night so viewers, of all hours, became used to
(their own) local programming. One of the most interesting developments
about non linear, programming is that "Prime Time" in Amsterdam slowly but
steadily moved from the conventional, nuclear family, time slot of 20.00
hours to 02.00 hours, the time when thousands of viewers get back home
from bars and clubs and when confronted with a very limited choice at that
hour, tune into their "favorite" local station.

Citizen Television

An other important development of this period, is the appearance of a new
television format: "Citizen Television" programming that was no longer
realized by professionals, nor amateurs, but by concerned citizens with
opinions, people wanting to play an active role in the developments of
their community. This element brought along the desmistification of the
medium; in the same way that professional, telephone switch board (patch
panel) operators were no longer needed for people to phone one an other
with the introduction of automatic dialing in the 30s, professionals were
no longer needed for television making.

Viewers Participation.

Viewers direct participation became a standard feature of Amsterdam's live
programming. An all night program could easily receive up to 300 phone
calls and roughly the same amount of faxes. IRC and moderated news groups
were also incorporated to the cablecasting combining a wide variety of
conveying sources into a final mix.
Point to point and mutipoint video conferencing was regularly used to
create links with other locations with in the city, nationally and
internationally.

The Establishment Reaction to the Events

National, public and private, networks (as well as the advertisement
industry) were fast in noticing and catching up the developments taking
place with Amsterdam local television and the new, emerging audio visual
vocabulary created in this no-budget situation. They were fast and
efficient in readapting these developments to the requirements of their
very competitive markets and advertisement people and net work executives
were often seen monitoring Salto's live cablecastings behind the scenes.
The so called "Late Night (cheap to produce and profitable) Television
Format" that includes viewers participation was first developed into its
present form by the local programmers in Amsterdam and then commercialized
by the national networks.
There are many that say that it is partly because of the developments in
local, tactical television in Amsterdam, that many networks decided to
have studios in the Dutch capital, and in some cases to fully operate from
there, instead of Hilversum the city where the Dutch national networks are
concentrated, in order to be close to the radically innovative programming
generated at that period. After all, a century earlier, it was the
initiatives of pioneer radio amateurs that developed radio as the first
electronic mass medium

The End of the 90s

Right after the 1998 local elections, programmers in Salto were confronted
with radical changes imposed by the new management. "The Nest" (a
conference room) the place used for live cablecasting was no longer
available (so that technicians could have more space) a discussion taken
without any prior consultation with the many programmers that cablecasted
live from there, and unsesitively disregarding the history written from
this particular room. Cablecasting from any other location in the city
makes a live program much more expensive. The only alternative available
was a "semi professional" studio (semiprofessional = semipreagnant one is
or one is no. There are no in between) that was of no interest to those
involved in "Citizen Television" and lot more expensive.

"Studio" rental doubled and to the new basic price, a lot of extra costs
were added.


                            ------------------------------------
The perfect example:

Costs for one hour of live television from the Nest until the spring of 1998:
Transmission costs: Fl. 50 ( ^e, 22)
Rental of the Nest: Fl 7.50 ( ^e. 3)
A total of aprox. Fl. 60 (  ^e. 28)

Costs after the summer 1998 from the "semiprofessional" studio
Transmission costs: Fl. 50 ( ^e. 22)
Semiprofessional studio costs Fl. 30 ( ^e 13)
Lights & Air Co (mandatory?!) Fl. 300 ( ^e 130)

                          ------------------------------------------

Still very cheap for international standards, but a big difference for
those operating on a no-budget basis, and all of this for the sake of
semiprofesionalization (?) something that nobody among programers was
asking for in the first place.

The Lethal Injection

Inexperienced, uninnovative management combined with decisions taken by
incompetent politicians and implemented by of the local burocracy, are the
main components for the "Fatal Injection" that will terminate tactical
television programming in Amsterdam.

Salto's approach to programming for the new millennium is the typical
reaction of Dutch non profit organizations to political and burocratic
pressure: in order to get more subsidy, or... worst, to keep the subsidy,
they have to pretend to be -to look- very "professional" (19th Century
Industrialist professionalism ) enlarging infrastructure and hiring more
-unqualified- personnel to push more paper and to desperately pretend to
be important and efficient. This new developments were combined by Salto's
clumsy marketing and public relations schemes trying to look neo-liberal
an open to private initiative. Puerile schemes that are totally un
necessary in a non profit and heavily subsidized organization.
Advertisement departments and in stead of an active web page and
webcasting radio and t.v. programming via real audio and real video, Salto
invests precious time, energy and resources in the publication of a (hard
copy) radio and t.v. guide distributed among programmers (that nobody
reads) and that recently patronizes tv makers by featuring text about how
to make better television in the language and the attitude used to address
primary school students. All of this is also partly due to the fact that
all responsibilities rest on the management shoulders; The board of
directors of Salto plays no active role and operates more like an Honorary
Committee that sanctions administrators initiatives.

Salto's imposition of "semi professionalism" up on programmers has
suffocated all tactical approaches to television making and has frustrated
the development of a new, and very much needed, vocabulary that
incorporate all of the many sources that conform television programming in
the information era.

Pressure from Above.

Part of the problem is due to the pressure put up on Salto by civil
servants that most implement blindly polices devised by elected officials
that in many cases are only interested in delivering the sound bytes that
their respective parties instruct them to deliver, no matter when, no
matter where, no matter how. The identity crisis faced by Western politics
and politicians at the moment also reflects in the Amsterdam's local
media. Events suddenly take place and unexpected changes are rapidly
implemented simply because generalists in decision making positions think
that things should be that way. Generalists that are only interested in
their own success no matter doing what a no matter how. Culture and
communications are vulnerable fields for this sort of attacks and it is
unavoidable for people experimenting in these areas to have to confront
these situations at some point.

Institutionalization

This is probably the case with very well organized societies like the
Netherlands where the institunalization terminates the spontaneous
existence of activities such as tactical, local programming. they get
strangled by burocratic straight jackets. The short lived leading role
played by Dutch artists in video art during the early 70s is the best
example to illustrate the situation. As soon as the Stedelijk Museum in
Amsterdam, took interest in this particular discipline the Dutch role and
influence diminished to the lowest possible level.

Because of radical changes in subsidy policies, local television makers
are now forced to invest time energy and resources -that should be put
into generating better programming- into peddling bill boards in the title
role, in exchange for charitable donations from coffee shops and other
local business to pay for their programming. All of this only because
"everything should be privatized." All in the name of privatization the
latest trend, the latest craze (for the kick of privatization) and all of
this in the land of plenty.

A lot of the austerity measures imposed by the government are also partly
due to the negligence of some of the bigger local programmers that been
profiting from the situation for too long and concentrate in generating a
minimum of programs, of a minimum quality, that are rerunned and rerunned
time after time for hours and hours while operating as organizations with
gigantic burocratic infrastructures.

The Bigger Picture

Salto on the other hand has outstretched too much and has run out of time
without outlining a clear idea about the differences between "Public
Access" and "Special Interest" and, in fact, managing two half empty
channels that are either public access nor special interest, at a very
dangerous moment, in a very competitive market where television
frequencies are a precious commodity. It is logical that it was in Salto's
interest to take that extra channel when the opportunity arrived and they
should be commended for that but it is really a shame that they were not
prepared for it and programmers were arbitrarily divide among public
access (meaning amateurs) and special interest (meaning semi
professionals) Since the introduction of A1 it is like those that
cablecast in that channel are of a better sort than the rest and nobody
knows why except fact that the A1ers receive a lot more subsidy than the
others.

The Players

There are already noises about A2000 (Amsterdam cable operator) wanting to
reclaim one of Salto's channels, politicians (many of them enjoyed hours
and hours of free, local air time throughout the 90s) are talking about
centralizing all local programming in one channel. Some of them even think
that now is time to privatize all local initiatives to "put them in the
market and get the investment back" so Salto will soon be confronting
considerable contenders. MTV first and than CNN where no match for A2000
during negotiations on transmission fees. They both are out of the A2000
only package for Amsterdam cable subscribers (and there are no other
options no other cable operators) so Amsterdam, one of the European media
capitals, does not have any of these two important networks. In a year of
negotiations, the local government has not managed to reach and agreement
with A2000 to get these two networks back in the package. When the time
comes Salto will be an easy prey for the cable operator.
A2000 is not the one to be blamed for any of this, on the contrary, until
now they have behaved properly and mildly; after all, they are a
commercial operation offering a variety of services: cable radio &
television & special packages and PPV, cable modem for internet and other
on-line services, fibber optics, telephone, etc. They operates in an open,
aggressive and competitive market. The ones that are to blame are those
that decided to privatize the Amsterdam cable operator.

Why Privatization

KTA (Cable Television Amsterdam) the city owned cable operator was put in
the market in 1995 and shortly after sold for aprox. Fl 700000000 ( ^e
320000000) Bill Gates, Philips, Bell Telephone and other powerful
multinationals are mayor share holders. After been sold KTA became A2000.
KTA was originally sold to pay for Ijburg, a new development in the
outskirts of Amsterdam, an initiative challenged by many local, pressure
groups that resulted in a referendum. Whatever deal was made was the wrong
deal (and who knows, may be there was no good deal because as old guard,
true socialists have always maintained: "public services are not for
sale") In any case, the deal was closed by Frank de Graaf than the
Economics City Commissioner (Alderman) in the Amsterdam City Council and
now a days the Dutch Minister of Defense. The hope of many is that if
there is a war he wont deal with it in the way that he dealt with A2000.
Today cable television, a public service is run as an efficient,
commercial operation and "Amsterdamers" have no choice but to leave with
it.

The Next Step

It is probably too late to change the course of things but at least local
programmers can now a days operate with other tools and in other
inviroments. The net for one thing offers a wide variety of possibilities
and it might not be full motion video but who cares after all it is not
about the medium, it is about the message and there is still room for
citizen participation in civic communications.



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