Corporations Possess; Public Access Is Torn: Télévision Vérité. Liebography.

"B: I wanted to make a film that showed how sad and lyrical it is for those two old ladies to be living in those rooms full of newspapers and cats. A: You shouldn't make it sad. You should just say, 'This is how people today are doing things.'"

-Andy Warhol

"And clearly enough, this very triviality of daily life in late capitalism is itself the desperate situation against which all the formal solutions, the strategies and subterfuges, of high culture as well as of mass culture, emerge: how to project the illusion that things still happen, that events exist, that there are still stories to tell, in a situation in which the uniqueness and the irrevocability of private destinies and of individuality itself seem to have evaporated. This impossibility of realism -and more generally, the impossibility of a living culture which might speak to a unified public about shared experience- determines the metageneric solutions with which we began. It also accounts for the emergence of what might be called false or imitation narrative, for the illusionistic transformation into a seemingly unified and linear narrative surface of what is in reality a collage of heterogeneous materials and fragments, the most striking of which are kinetic or physiological segments inserted into texts of a rather different order."

-Fredric Jameson

In Make Room for TV, Lynn Spigel chronicles the explosion of television in the private sector in an America fresh from the war economy of the early 1940s. In seven years, from 1948 to 1955, television became the dominant mass medium, replacing the radio of the 1920s and the newspaper of the 1900s and earlier. Central to television's popularity in the home was its success at entertaining, or, rather, the apparatus was the vehicle for the broadcasting which sought to, and certainly did, entertain its audience. Television watching became the new leisure activity as well as the new focus of the living room, replacing the spaces formerly taken up by the hearth and the piano. Television's role as primarily an entertainer distinguished it from radio and the newspaper, which functioned primarily to inform.

Television today broadcasts a multiplicity of "entertainment." In fact, it broadcasts beyond what is entertaining, and has become so specialized that whatever you find entertaining or even simply interesting, there is probably a channel, if not more than one, for it on cable. As the range of television channels expands, the specialization of each channel to a certain genre is visible. We started with the relatively simple Music Television (MTV) in the early 1980s, and we slowly gained the Game & Fishing Channel, the Cartoon Network, the Black Entertainment Channel, and the Golf Channel; now we have the History Channel, which may better be called the Hitler Channel, a second form of MTV (formerly M2, now MTV2), and the Oxygen Network Channel (the official network of Oxygen, originally a website, I believe), et cetera ad nauseam. Where the older notion of television has its roots in the major "networks" — in America, ABC, CBS, and NBC, which all include in their names some allusion to America via the Nation or Centrality because they to speak to and perhaps for the entire nation — the newer developments in television include cable networks boasting more than one hundred channels, some more than two hundred channels, and some with channels that represent web pages. As well, satellite television enables each viewer with a dish to receive hundreds of channels, from not only across the nation but also from across the world.

Although it's tempting to disregard television as plebian entertainment, something I often do, the fact remains that there are near-limitless possibilities for challenging and fascinating television "programming," for if film and video compel us at all, then surely television, which can broadcast anything which can be recorded, has just as much revolutionary potential as any other medium. Television networks are united in the reality that to produce their often obscenely expensive television shows and news broadcasts, their programming must appeal to and support the commercials which break the flow of programming every few minutes or so to pitch their product to the populace. In this television game of entertainment and news (often the same thing), we forget one essential thing: the airwaves belong to the people. Yet. . . corporations possess the stations. It is federally mandated through the FCC that each locality offer public access airspace and funding, and the money for this is skimmed off everyone's cable bill. In the midst of television's ever-expanding base, public access networks demonstrate television's functionality as and ability to be a more interactive medium, for it is out of the commercial loop, theoretically, at least, free from the need to offer its airspace to commercials.

Public access television is a general term for community-based networks that broadcast programs which members of the community either support or produce themselves. A public access network can encompass more than one channel, but in smaller communities can be a single channel. For example, BronxNet is, officially, the Bronx Community Cable Programming Corporation, which exists from the franchise contract between the City of New York and the borough of the Bronx. Many public access networks have free training sessions for the public to learn the equipment necessary to produce a television program. Some of the shows featured on BronxNet include Cornucopia Utopia, which bills itself as "télévision vérité" and airs every Tuesday and Friday at 5:30 am and 10:00 pm on BronxNet Channel 70. Cornucopia Utopia is:

a variety show featuring historical documentaries, video art, performance art, interviews and opinion, emphasizing the culture of marginalized communities, particularly gay/Lesbian/bisexual/transgenderist persons of color. The producer and his/her cohorts are queer leftists of color (many from the Bronx) who document life, art, and culture wherever they go. They often frequent night clubs where drag queens and transsexuals perform, thus preserving these eclectic performances for a wider audience. Hopefully, future episodes will feature more leftist-themed pieces encouraging the dismantling of the white heteropatriarchy, especially in humorous and glamorous ways.

BronxNet's four channels break down such that Channel 67 features call-in shows, public affairs, and cultural and sports programs, Channel 68 is the arts, entertainment and sports channel, Channel 69 features foreign language programming, while Channel 70 focuses on government issues, community interests, and religion. As you can see, the programming for each channel is not very themed; BronxNet's channel descriptions very much overlap with one another. Cornucopia Utopia shares time on Channel 70 with such a range of shows as Church Alive Broadcast which "has a holistic approach to gospel," Images, Concepts, & Symbols, a program "made to empower women," and VA Insights where veterans issues, mostly centered on health, are discussed. Channel 68 features Dancer's Night, showcasing the children and adults who take classes at the Starlite Dance Studio, as well as the I am Magic show, featuring "local, tri-state magicians who are dedicated to promoting the Art of magic among the general public." To its credit as the foreign language channel, Channel 69 features El Show de Freddy Lopez, a "bilingual show of freestyle music." BronxNet also features Liebography, on Channel 68, but only bimonthly since its two year contract has expired.

So enter Liebography, "the drunken cliff notes of history," into the mix of network news, Pay-per-view, God channels, and Home shopping networks via cable public access. Liebography spreads lies over official Biography footage, with bits of Soylent Green and A Clockwork Orange edited into the mix. Consider this official-sounding narrative recorded over VH1's Legends footage:

They started their career as a bat mitzvah band for Donovan's daughter Ione Skye. Members of the Press were in attendance and the next day they declared Led Zeppelin to be the hottest thing to come out of England since Neville Chamberlain's policy of Nazi appeasement.

I had the pleasure of seeing the Liebography on Calvin Klein via Rhode Island's public access network. It only takes a few seconds of watching before it's obvious this is no "true Hollywood story" and a clever parody of television, pop culture, and our own fascination with celebrity that is encouraged by mass media.

The show's creators, Jay Barba, Brian Farrelly, and the mysterious Ezel, weave David Geffen jokes over Kraftwerk's "The Model," and reminisce about the summer that Jello Biafra invited us to a "Holiday in Cambodia" over clips of Ben Hur, Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Sex* *But Were Afraid to Ask (the movie, not the book), A Clockwork Orange, footage of people fucking that I can't identify, and more while intersecting the Liebography biography of Calvin Klein with the legacy of Studio 54 and Andy Warhol. One of the best parts of this program was the repetition of the censored clip (an otherwise blank screen with only the word "CENSORED") which, during the Studio 54 scenes, seems very appropriate.

Liebography is very pleasurable to watch. The clips give us pleasure, the pleasure of identifying them within our knowledge base. Besides from sometimes being hilarious, and sometimes also true, the program affirms our role in this (postmodern) society: to navigate through this pastiche narrative of cultural knowledge and fragments and still get all the jokes, I mean, referents. "To display the virtuosity of the practitioner rather than the absurdity of the object" is the postmodern theoretician Fredric Jameson's assessment of the pastiche artist versus the parody artist. Because we don't actually care about Calvin Klein, in reality he's not even funny, and we may even acknowledge that his fashion design catalogue is impressive, that the clothes which bear his (brand) name are both sexy and comfortable. The Liebography episode isn't about ridiculing Klein, but about subjecting everything to ridicule, even things which really aren't ridiculous. Like the bad joke about Neville Chamberlain's appeasement policy: it's not as if late-1930s politics is something to be sarcastic about. . . but then what else is there to talk about? We ceaselessly cannibalize the past to create our present amusements, do we not?

As our objects are almost all mass-produced, the "new" and the "real" — the authentic, the dream of innovation — become the signifiers of a past that is increasingly something for which we feel the strings of nostalgia tugging on our hearts to only remember that we have forgotten or perhaps never knew in the first place what exactly is real. "Postmodernism is what you have when the modernization process is complete and nature is gone for good. . . Postmodernism is the consumption of sheer commodification as a process," Jameson clarifies in his introduction to Postmodernism: or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Jameson, relying on Adorno and Debord, and somewhere, of course, on Benjamin, writes that this is the age of the image; we have the capacity for infinite (but empty) (but fun) representations of things which inspire an enthusiasm which Jameson notes isn't exactly related to the essence of the thing itself. Ergo, the ontology of the referent, its individual truth, or the Modernist promise of its having a truth, is now dead in this postmodern world. So if we respect the production and product of Liebography, it is because of the virtuosity of its good-humored cannibalization of the recent past via cultural remnants/referents that most of us can identify. Or, that the successful postmodern subjects among us can identify and consume, perhaps even write a paper about.

I can't yet locate where and if Jameson offers hope, or if 'hope' is just another Modernist fantasy, no longer available in this stage of late capital, this ever-consuming spectacle of postmodern life. Perhaps this is a world in which 'sincerity' is no longer possible, or at least in the old sense, and where 'sincerity' now can mean the virtuosity with which Barba, Farrelly, and Ezel re-weave the spectacle into their own product, Liebography. Public access, though, much like the internet, offers a model of interactivity that network television denies and suppresses; you can sign up, submit some work, and end up with your own television slot. Possibly with the growth of digital cable and satellite television, public access can grow to be more national than community-based, something that clearly limits it from gaining a wider audience. An interesting addendum to Liebography's public access story is that Jay received an email from a man in Rhode Island who wanted the program to show in his state. Ergo, he signed up for a slot at the local public access station, and lo and behold Brianne Schiebler flips to Liebography in August in the most bucolic Tiverton, Rhode Island. This example demonstrates an almost rhizomatic structure that public access could encourage in order to gain more appeal. Perhaps after my description of Cornucopia Utopia, someone will petition for it to come to Gainesville, Florida. Barba himself likens his work with Liebography to the indie movement, and public access does allow for an indie-type of distribution, removed from the television programming dominated by global capital. That public access is removed from the necessity of commercial funding does offer a Marxist appeal, and perhaps some kind of model and hope for mass media not dependent on the corporation. I doubt Jameson would share my optimism, but perhaps with the rise of the information age and the Internet new structures will arise to complicate the relationship between entertainment, capital, and critique.

Scroll to Top