Arlington residents don't have to just watch television anymore, now they can star in it. Thanks to Arlington Community Television, frustrated actors, singers, dancers, comedians, and just plain talkers can showcase their talents on cable Channel 33.
Anyone who feels funnier than Johnny Carson or faster than Michael Jackson receives five minutes on the air to prove it, in a new bimonthly program called "Your Turn." The program also encourages speakers to voice opinions on local issues.
Executive Director Steve Israelsky envisions "Your Turn" as a broadcasting platform for two respected old traditions. "The idea is to present that person who stands on a soapbox and speaks out on issues, as well as the street performer."
Guests at a recent taping represented both. All Points Bulletin, a local rhythym and blues band, shared the spotlight with new wave group No Problem, as well as with Leon Kogut, Arlington Chapter president of the National Association of Retired Federal Employees, and an anonymous spokeswoman for the recognition of Kurdistan, an extensive part of eastern Turkey seeking independent status.
The absence of elaborate MTV-style effects did not detract from either band's video debut. Group members rocked and rolled around a homemade set before a standard three-camera studio setup. All Points Bulletin, four former Yorktown High School friends and their recently hired drummer, performed original rhythm-and-blues numbers with cheerful enthusiasm. They seemed delighted to have the opportunity to appear on television, even of the highly localized variety. Band saxophonist Ted Watkin explained why.
"The hardest thing for any beginning musician to get is exposure, which is also what he needs the most. This kind of show works out real well for everybody. We get the exposure, the station gets the entertainment. So does the audience."
But the performers weren't the only amateurs on "Your Turn." The technical crew behind the cameras, on the set, and in the production booth also lacked extensive television experience. The opportunity to gain some free prompted some busy Arlington residents to trade leisure time for studio time. This taping found political consultant Paul Lavrakas and Arlington publicist Clare Wood scrambling with electronic equipment, while director Israelsky barked instructions through their headphones. "Everybody has to know everything," explained Lavrakas.
The taping went smoothly on both sides of the cameras. The technical crew worked hard and well, their workflow occasionally slowed by puzzled expressions. The production booth resembled something out of Star Trek, with monitor screens, sound grids, switchers, and terminals blinking incessantly.
"Your Turn" and its cable carrier, Arlington Community Television, represent a realization of a decades-old ideal, that of television as a community forum. The FCC had tried for years to bring this about, but its regulations (such as the prime-time access rule that gave local stations the first half hour of prime time each night), resulted in little more community involvement.
But cable television, particularly in Arlington County, encourages such involvement. In exchange for the cable franchise, Arlington cable partners agreed to provide the county with annual funding, use of studio facilities, and $470,000 in equipment. The funding supports a staff of four, including Israelsky; all others volunteer their services.
"The community is very involved," Israelsky says. "We now have 400 members."
The concept of amateurs on the tube might annoy the thousands of performers around the country who are struggling for a chance on real TV.
But that's show biz.