The Golden Age of NYC Public-Access TV at MOMI


Take heed, connoisseurs of the amateur—in both the “done for love” sense and the less-flattering one. Public-access television speaks in the accents of the boroughs at the Museum of the Moving Image.

A once-thriving vernacular culture bypassed by the superhighway of YouTube exhibitionism, American public access began in 1971. Negotiating to wire public property in Manhattan for cable, the two major providers, TelePrompTer and Sterling Manhattan, like developers bargaining with promised playground space, agreed to provide Channels C and D for NYC’s commercial-free self-expression: “our last (or at least latest) hope for an electronic embodiment of the First Amendment,” per The New York Times.
Most of the material surveyed in MOMI’s multi-program channel-surf (curated by Leah Churner and Voice contributor Nicolas Rapold), which skims representative flotsam from a river of programming, comes from the “Golden Age” of access. This era is principally the ’80s—the cut-off is suggested by the 1991 extinction of Channel J, the “leased access” channel born in 1976 that charged for airtime, allowed producer-solicited advertising, and gained a reputation as the FCC-impervious home for the off-color and outré.

Perusing Channel J, one found the underground and underbelly of the Ed Koch years. If coaxial cable could transmit pubic rash, Midnight Blue, a weekly forum for Screw publisher Al Goldstein’s groping interviews and splenetic rants, would be the show to do it (typical bon mot: “Eat a leper”). Elsewhere, a congested, chipmunk-cheeked, good-vibes gal named Coco Crystal presided over If I Can’t Dance, You Can Keep Your Revolution (1977–95), while variety half-hour The Live Show (1979–84) had as its ringmaster the deadpan-absurdist, ambiguously foreign Jaime Davidovich—philosopher-leader of “Cable SoHo,” a collective of artists and institutions who’d petitioned for cable access below Houston Street. The Metro Access Studios on East 23rd Street—which opened in 1976, the same year that SoHo was wired—provided a studio equipped for live-broadcast call-in shows, where Davidovich pushed the format: Troubadour Paul McMahon’s “Rock ’n’ Roll Psychiatrist” improvised therapeutic riffs, while Davidovich himself hosted black-velvet art lessons, TV-addict counseling, and broadsides at the Whitney Biennial.

Other Cable SoHo productions tended to gallows gallery humor from art-world vets, like the faux-museum-curators roundtable Outreach (1976), a grotesquerie hosted drolly by critic/former Warhol actor Gregory Battcock. Among younger producers, spazzy, anti-careerist shows, defined in opposition to mass-media pop, paralleled upstart DIY music. The MOMI series title refers to Glenn O’Brien’s No Wave chat show (1978–82) of the same name, which was also borrowed for a Black Flag novelty tune. On The Scott & Gary Show (1983–89), an in-studio, live-band dance party laced with skits, one group rolls out their (not-inaccurate) anthem “I’m Too Ugly for MTV,” gracing the same stage that also hosted the Butthole Surfers and an awful teen hardcore band with an overdeveloped sense of entitlement called the Beastie Boys. “EVEN THIS IS BETTER THAN MTV” is typed across the screen during one goof-off show, Stiff Competition, in which host Marcello Romero tangles with chick callers—He: “I don’t like Duran Duran that much.” Caller: “They are gorgeous and that’s more than I can say for you”—while his buddies hyperactively horse around.

Attesting to the clubhouse atmosphere at heyday Metro Access, Romero leads the call-ins during the pilot of Rapid T. Rabbit & Friends (1983– ), puppet-hosted brainchild of one Richard J. Concepcion. At MOMI’s all-star “NYC Public Access Reunion” on February 11, one may perhaps see Concepcion in rabbit-suit regalia while, onscreen, Rapid T. can be seen interviewing a helium-voiced stuffed polar bear named Snuffles, who continues a rich tradition of low-rent public-access puppetry emceeing on The Wild Record Collection (1996– ).

Snuffles introduces WRC as “The show where we like to show you record covers . . . and play you cuts from those records . . . and dance around a lot.” Pogoing on his ass to keep the beat or ride the lead vocal, Snuffles is joined by a revolving cast of supporting plushies—in one episode I counted nearly 30 “guests”—interpretive dancing to a playlist of girl groups, r&b, Laugh-In zingers, and punk 7-inches. Each tune is more or less choreographed, and some, like the Fall’s “Who Makes the Nazis?,” brilliantly emphasize the dynamic tensions of a song. An initial response to watching an episode of WRC (airing on Channel 56, 2 a.m., Saturdays) might be, “Why would anyone bother doing this?,” followed by a kind of hypnotized giddiness, for the show is perfect in the way public access can be, an airtight terrarium of obsessions. Celebrating the life left in allegedly obsolete media, WRC is the very spirit of MOMI’s program.