When 60-year-old Paulette Geer walked into the makeshift Montgomery Community Television studio, housed in the century-old red brick Rockville courthouse, earlier this year, she felt as though a whole new world was opening up to her.
Soon Geer, director of nursing of the Montgomery County Red Cross, was bent over a video camera, intent on learning everything about television production -- from how to put on the lens cap to the intricacies of lighting and sound.
And she is not alone. A growing number of people in the Washington area -- from children to senior citizens -- are learning how to create their own television programs for public access channels on area cable networks.
Most of the cable stations in the metropolitan area are required, as part of the franchise agreements with the communities they serve, to set aside one or more channels for the use of local residents and community groups to produce shows on almost anything they want, at little or no charge. In addition, the cable companies must provide the money and equipment to train residents.
There are currently seven area cable systems: one each in Arlington, Alexandria, Fairfax, Reston and Montgomery County, and two in Prince George's County. In the District, construction on a new cable system is expected to begin in October. The system, including public access programming, should be operating by next March, according to Richard Maulsby, executive director of the D.C. Office of Cable Television.
In each community, separate channels are usually available for the local school system and colleges and government, as well as the general public and civic groups.
The programs, which run the gamut from local news shows and public service programs to live county council meetings and arts and entertainment, are changing the face of television both here and around the country.
Although the quality varies -- many look home-made -- the programs offer local information not available on any large scale until recently, says Sue Buske, executive director of the National Federation of Local Cable Programmers, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that provides technical advice on public access programming.
"Public access," explains Buske, "is a broadening of the spectrum within the television community to become a little bit more comparable to what is available in print.
"Think about the kinds of print materials that one gets in the average week . . . from your daily newspaper to your slick weekly magazine to a newsletter done by a community organization. A wide diversity of subject matter is covered.
"In television," says Buske, "we haven't had that kind of diversity. Nor have we had access to the tools of television like we have access to the tools of print."
The key to public access is the extensive use of volunteers instead of paid staff to produce programs, says Buske. That cuts down on production costs and enables stations to produce a wider range of shows than is generally possible on commercial or even public television.
One of the oldest cable systems in the Washington area is in Arlington, which has been broadcasting public access programs for more than a year. Those broadcasts include programs produced by the League of Women Voters and other civic groups, as well as more entertaining fare like "Star Chronicles," a science fiction show, and the popular "Watch Out! Arlington," a "Saturday Night Live" take-off.
One of the newest programs is "Club Arlington," a weekly show set in a bar and featuring area musicians. That show is produced entirely by volunteer TV buffs such as Brad McCoy, a 28-year-old Library of Congress playback technician.
For McCoy, helping to produce public access programs is a creative outlet. "The job that I have at the Library of Congress tends to be pretty routine. That's very frustrating for me. This is a chance for me to do what I want, to think creatively and to see the product from start to finish."
Even though he's not paid, McCoy says working at Arlington Community Television is in many ways a "fantasy job." Instead of getting locked into one narrow role, he and other volunteers take turns at everything from set construction to camera work to on-air interviewing.
For some, a stint on public access shows can lead to a paying job in the competitive world of commercial television. When 27-year-old Laura Janis, a research assistant at the Equality Center, a Washington civil rights organization, began taking training courses at Arlington Community Television last August, it was just for fun.
But after only a week of classes, she recalls, "I decided that this is what I want to do." A few months later, she went to work as a production assistant at Cable News Network in Washington. During her job interview, she says, she was told that her experience with Arlington public access had counted heavily.
For others, especially children, the experience of actually producing television programs can help demystify the glamorous medium and teach viewers how to watch television more critically.
"For the young people who watch it, community cable can be a video civics lesson, teaching how the town works, how its government, schools and social services operate. For the young people who make it, community cable can be an education not just in how the community functions but in how television functions," says Community Cable for and by Children, a handbook produced by the Boston-based Action for Children's Television, a nonprofit organization that works to improve the quality and diversity of children's programming.
"When children and teens understand how TV is made, the medium is demystified. That means better informed, more critical TV viewers -- the kind of video literacy so necessary for everyone in our video age, but especially important to young TV consumers," the handbook continues.
One unanswered question is whether viewers will watch local programs produced by amateurs and volunteers.
The few surveys that have been done, however, have revealed a "much larger viewership than those working in the field have even imagined," says Buske. In one community, it was found that 75 percent of the subscribers to cable were aware of the access channel and 54 percent watched it at least once a week.
"When you have an operation that is well-managed, and people know the programming is on the channel at regular times, and there has been a lot of community education done," says Buske, "people watch it."
"People are thirsting for this kind of television," claims Reuben Lozner, president of the Montgomery Community Television (MCT) board of directors.
"We feel public access will be meaningful to many TV viewers who are disenchanted with commercial television. We want them to get excited about what is going on in Montgomery County."
MCT plans to begin broadcasting its first public access programs in the county by the fall.
Meanwhile, the nonprofit entity established to run 12 public access channels is training area residents to use the new tools and setting up satellite studios around the county, including one to open April 23 at Holiday Park, a county-run senior citizens center in Wheaton.
Among the shows in the works: interviews with Montgomery County residents who survived the Holocaust, a musical comedy shot in an area park, a documentary about the local chapter of the National Organization for Women, and shows about CPR and rabies.
MCT plans to flash pictures of missing children between programs. Without commercials, public access channels have greater flexibility to do such public service spots, explains MCT Executive Director Ralph Malvik.
The Fairfax public school system, which has its own access channel, lists school activities and news on a continuous electronic bulletin board.
In addition, the school system, which began broadcasting in January, features students in half-hour shows about such activities as a high school canoe trip and reading and art programs. One of its most recent additions: "Student's Corner," a monthly news and interview program written and directed by students.
"It's a great experience for kids," says Dolores Bohen, assistant superintendent for public and professional services in Fairfax. "By watching themselves on television, they learn how to be poised and articulate," she says.
Local groups such as the Northern Virginia Youth Symphony spend "endless hours rehearsing and practicing, then perform to a live audience of maybe 150 to 250 people, most of whom are parents and other relatives," says Cliff Hall, executive director of the Fairfax Cable Access Corp., which now broadcasts those concerts.
"If we can, by taping these concerts, even double or triple the number of people who see them, it's great for the performers and it's great for the community."
But he and other public access advocates concede that it's too soon to tell yet what the long-range significance of public access programming will be, or even whether the phenomenon is here to stay.
Only about one-fifth of the estimated 6,000 cable systems nationwide currently offer public access programming, says Buske. "When it comes time for local cable companies to come in for cutbacks, as some have done in major cities recently, the first thing they go after is the equipment and support for access programming."
Barbara Armstrong is a Washington writer specializing in technology and the family. Free-lance writer Susan Sharpe also contributed to this story.