Movie reviewer Randy Shulman didn't know why there were frogs on the set.
A dozen green plastic frogs, in various states of sitting and springing, were strewn over the stage for the movie review show "Whaddaya Want, Entertainment?" on Channel 10, the Fairfax County cable television channel that invites the public to create their own shows.
"We don't know what the frogs are for. We don't know what most of anything's for. But we do know one thing -- we have fun," Shulman said.
Fun is an understatement.
Shulman, alternately irascible and playful, was lambasted by a phone caller impersonating actor John Houseman; he interviewed Scuz, a skeleton dressed in leather, and struggled with the frogs. He also provided brisk, authoritative commentary on four new films. "Return of the Living Dead" was a must-see as registered on the show's popcornometer -- a carton of popcorn filled according to the reviewer's evaluation.
The movie review is one of a number of shows written, produced and directed entirely by Fairfax residents who volunteer at the television studio of the independent, nonprofit Fairfax Cable Access Corp. All shows televised on channel 10 are the product of the volunteers. More than 500 people have become involved in some aspect of community-produced television over the past year and a half.
The channel is funded by Media General as part of an agreement made when Media General received the cable franchise for the county. The studio is located on the Annandale campus of the Northern Virginia Community College.
From inside the studio control room with its lighting and audio controls and eight television monitors, "Whaddaya Want, Entertainment?" producer and director Wes Carr resembles an air traffic controller as he calls out production signals to two camera operators and two technical assistants. Carr recently graduated from George Mason University with a degree in communications and wants to learn more about television production and editing.
Media General provides the public access corporation with a $300,000 annual operating budget in addition to $350,000 worth of television equipment that ranges from portable cameras and a mobile TV studio to production and editing equipment for three sets. The cable company also finances workshops in basic television editing, studio production and the use of portable cameras. The fee for the courses is $25.
Shows produced by local residents are televised on Channel 10 between 4 and 11 p.m. Monday through Friday. Space is available on three additional channels if more people express interest in producing programs, said Cliff Hall, executive director of the Fairfax Cable Access Corp.
"The opportunities for any meaningful local programming are very few in commercial and public TV. With the advent of cable and public access, it changes the picture enormously," Hall said.
The format and topics of community-produced programs are virtually unlimited. Recent local show, for example, have been devoted to health, Boy Scouts, pet care, jelly-making, dulcimer music and a celebrity roast of County Board of Supervisors Chairman John Herrity. Adrian Lanham, who owns a local construction company, has produced shows about Japanese art and the Warrenton Air Park, which is owned by Charles Beatley, former mayor of Alexandria.
Those who work behind the scenes to produce the shows may be camera operators for one show and directors of another, said Maryan McNaughton, 33, who volunteers five to eight hours weekly.
"I'm just a grunt here. I help with setting up the set, cutting the gels colored plastic coverings for stage lights . It's a situation where you jump in and do whatever needs doing. It's good for learning teamwork," McNaughton said. She was helping out on "Whaddaya Want" as a camera operator.
McNaughton produces industrial training films for a living, but she had no hands-on experience in television, so she enrolled in the Portapak Workshop to learn basic camera and production techniques.
"People are so specialized in the industry. If you come here, you find out what you can do naturally. Some find they like being in front of the camera. Directing is different and fun because you coax out of people what they're best at," she said.
McNaughton plans to produce the "Neighborhood Naturalist" for public access television, to document the wildlife common to Northern Virginia.
There also is room for the bizarre. "Wheel of Torture," a parody of the TV game show "Wheel of Fortune," gave master of ceremonies Pat Sadist a chance to award prizes such as a trip to Devil's Island or loss of a limb to contestants Peter Fang and Barry Blueblood.
But most of the programs are not quite as offbeat.
Culture International, a public access program featuring ethnic music, dance and costumes from around the world, won a recent award at the Hometown USA Video Festival sponsored by the National Federation of Local Cable Programmers. And in November, a version of network television's Emmy award will be given to the best public access channel programs produced and aired in the the metropolitan area. It will be called the Telly award.
"My feeling is that once word gets around, more people will watch. I'm convinced that there's a small but loyal audience out there," Shulman said.