“This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire,” said Edward R. Murrow, patron saint of television, in one of his more hopeful assessments of the democratic potential of the medium. Of the latest aspirant to that noble idea, however—a brand-new open-source, open-standards video-publishing system built around a freeware viewer ambitiously dubbed Democracy—we must ask a further, more decisive question: Can it get us a copy of that “Lazy Sunday” sketch from Saturday Night Live, the one with the two guys rapping about cupcakes and Narnia?
The jury’s still out. When video-sharing site YouTube blew up with posts upon posts of “Lazy Sunday,” NBC came down on the company—and rivals like Google Video—like a ton of legal pads, forcing the removal of all copies. With a noncommercial product like Democracy, though, it may be harder for lawyers to know just where to put their Vulcan death squeeze. Produced by the nonprofit Participatory Culture Foundation, the Democracy player integrates with two other PCF projects—the video upload engine Broadcast Machine and the collaborative ratings site Video Bomb—to create a system that’s everything a TV for the people should be: A dead-simple means of viewing, launching, and filtering video, tied to no one corporation’s proprietary software or servers.
That the more popular channels of Democracy TV seem clogged, so far, with dancing Numa Numa toddlers, Wayne’s World wannabe’s, and other material not quite up to the level of Harvest of Shame is no mark against it. Other channels are brimming with earnest, progressive fare now likelier than ever to reach the micro-audiences it’s destined for. But in an age when public culture is threatened as much by corporate lockdown as by general dumb-down, I’ll wait till I catch my first sighting of a liberated “Lazy Sunday” to call this thing democracy.