June 28th, 2011 by Clark Humphrey

Seattle loses a major community institution this week, quietly.

SCAN TV (Seattle Community Access Network), the nonprofit that’s operated the city’s public access cable channel for more than a decade, closes up shop. SCAN declined to bid on another contract to run the channel, after penny pinching city bureaucrats slashed the funding for its operation.

The Seattle Community College District’s SCCtv agreed to take over the channel at the vastly reduced funding level. The new iteration of the access channel, renamed Seattle Community Media, starts Friday. For the first few weeks, as SCM gets its technical infrastructure together, programming will be limited to rerun episodes of shows supplied by existing SCAN citizen producers.

With the change comes the closing of the access studio on N. 98th Street east of Aurora. Starting in 1983 (when Group W Cable opened it as a condition of its city cable contract), the Northwest Access and Production Center’s modest 30-by-40-foot main studio hosted an astounding array of artisanal TV. Citizens signed up for time slots, took training classes on the gear, and created all-volunteer productions, some quite elaborate.

That room was known as the “big studio.” There was also the “small studio,” a walk-in closet with one camera and a control console; producers strove to stretch that room’s capabilities, even producing musical variety shows (albeit starring very small combos).

SCM will reinstall the SCAN equipment on the North Seattle Community College campus, just a few blocks east of the old site. This means producers will still be able to make multi-camera, studio-based TV shows, as well as single camcorder, field-based video footage.

But nothing on the new SCM channel will be cablecast live.

That means (1) no call-in segments, and (2) no in-studio surprises. In-studio mistakes, yes, but no surprises.

At the access channel’s peak of popularity in the mid 1990s, a Seattle Times feature story described its panoply of programming.

There was music of every conceivable genre, including some of the earliest footage of Soundgarden and other future “Seattle scene” stars (and should-have-been stars).

There were ethnic cultural programs ranging from Chinese to Somali.

There were single-issue discussion and monologue shows advocating everything from gun rights to alternative medicine.

There were preachers of every theological stripe, including UFO religions and atheism.

There was the Rev. Bruce Howard, a music teacher who created (and successively re-created) his own spiritual discipline, evolving from fire and brimstone to (relatively) happy folk singing. (No, I don’t know whatever happened to him.)

There was Philip Craft’s Political Playhouse, in which the sometimes naked host offered up interviews and comedy skits expressing his flavor of radicalism (politicians = bad, marijuana = good). Craft later moved to L.A. and helped make a low budget film based on his experiences, Anarchy TV.

Another lefty political show, Deface the Nation, had a vegan cooking spinoff series called All You Can Stomach.

There was the drag queen cooking show Queen’s Kitchen and its sequel Love, Laverne (a live sitcom).

There were other home brewed comedy ventures such as Bend My Ear Seattle (with hosts Chardmo and Johnny 99 and house band Hot Dog Water), The Make Josh Famous Half-Hour of Garbage, and Gavin’s Hawse (with Gavin Guss, later of the neo-pop band Tube Top and now a solo singer-songwriter).

There was Richard Lee’s Kurt Cobain Was Murdered, in which the steadily crazier looking and sounding Lee reiterated, week after week for years, his specious conspiracy theories. Lee eventually ran for mayor in 2001, showing up at a debate with a beard and in a dress.

There was deadpan comic MC Spud Goodman, one of the two access stars who graduated to “real” TV, hosting bizarre skits and local bands for four years on channels 22 and 13.

There was the other later-made-it-big guy, serious public affairs interviewer C.R. Douglas, who took his insightful chats with local political leaders to the city-owned Seattle Channel (retiring earlier this year).

And there was the call-in show Bong Hit Championships (did what it said on the tin).

In 1999, the access channel had already begun to fade from public awareness. That’s when the city engineered the creation of SCAN, and put the new nonprofit group charge of the channel.

One reason was to remove Comcast AT&T (which, through mergers, wound up with most of Seattle’s cable subscriptions, which would soon after be sold to Comcast) from the responsibility to enforce limits on the channel’s “free speech” policies.

Producers were forbidden from airing commercials or soliciting money on the air. Otherwise, pretty much any content was permitted. Officially, programming wasn’t supposed to violate federal “obscenity” guidelines.

But with a no-prescreening policy in effect, some producers dared to sneak stuff past. Michael Aviaz’s Mike Hunt TV and T.J. Williamson’s Fulfilling Your Fantasies included uncensored excerpts from hardcore porn videos. Aviaz’s show ran off and on for nine years, getting kicked off for good in 2006. Williamson stopped submitting X-rated shows, but continued to program non-controversial travelogue videos under the name Adventure TV.

One of the ’90s access stars, monologuist-painter Shannon (Goddess Kring) Kringen, is still on the channel today (though no longer prancing naked on camera).

So are a trio of long-running musical shows, Music Inner City, D’Maurice & Armageddon, and Blues To Dos.

This week’s final SCAN schedule includes much the same range of fare the access channel had in its heyday, albeit without some of the edgier fare.

There’s even a madcap comedy-variety show, The VonHummer Hour.

It’s imported from Portland.

The ultimate question should not be, “How could the city defund SCAN?”

It should rather be, “Why was so little done to defend it?”

One reason: In a 200-channel cable TV landscape, this one little unadvertised analog channel lost what local prominence it had.

Another reason: With YouTube and podcasts and video blog posts, a scheduled cable channel is a relatively inconvenient way to distribute and view indie video. And the ol’ WWW in general is a handier way to disseminate niche-audience messages and entertainments (albeit a harder place to find them).

Still, there’s something very invigorating, even democratizing, about people making their own TV and making it available to the whole community to view in real time.

With the right support, SCM could bring that spirit back.

UPDATE: Seattle Community Media has now taken over the channel. The schedule of programs is the same as the final SCAN schedule. The only difference so far is the promos between programs. One of them is a sped-up video of a short drive from the old SCAN building to the NSCC campus, where a small staff stands in wait to proclaim “Welcome to Seattle Community Media.”

One Response  
  • kahuku writes:
    June 28th, 201111:18 pmat

    Farewell SCAN. I haven’t seen you in awhile, but it was fun to watch you when I had access.

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