When students at Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville decided to assemble a video "yearbook" about their school, showing classes, school assemblies, football games, dances and other events as a record of life during the school year, they turned to Prince Georgians on Camera Inc., a nonprofit corporation that helps county residents produce cable television programs for free.
"They did a number of things for us that we couldn't do on our own," most notably, provide equipment and expertise, said Paul Oravis, a biology teacher and video buff who is sponsoring the project.
And when the program is shown on cable in Prince George's County this summer, students can use home videocassette recorders to record it, greatly simplifying distribution of the "yearbook" and significantly reducing the cost, he said.
But, he said, "the experience of doing it is the main thing for the kids."
That is how the founders of Prince Georgians on Camera look at it, said Executive Director Nancy Caliman.
The organization is based on the idea that cable television programming, "like a newsletter that anyone can print and distribute," can be do-it-yourself, she said.
Created in 1982 by the Prince George's County Council to promote public use of cable television, the group offers programming on cable Channel 6A from 5 to 9 p.m. weekdays.
It has produced programs that run the gamut from original plays to talk shows, soap operas, sports events, documentaries and even music videos.
"With public access, a community can come up with its own ideas," Caliman said. "If there is some issue you are interested in, you have the power and the resources to create it yourself.
"You don't have to talk a TV station into doing it, and you don't have to worry about an issue being too narrow. We frequently do shows on neighborhood issues, for instance."
Last month, Caliman said, the group produced two programs on the $400 million Bowie New Town Center, a massive complex of homes, office space and retail establishments approved last month by the county planning board.
The organization is funded primarily by the county's two cable companies, Prime Cable and MetroVision, as part of their franchise agreements to provide cable service to the county, Caliman said, adding that such a requirement is a standard part of franchise agreements with cable companies.
For instance, Montgomery, Fairfax and Arlington counties all have public access organizations, and the District, which does not yet have cable service, is planning to establish a public access corporation.
Those who use public access can produce shows in the studio or on location, Caliman said.
They use equipment owned either by Prime Cable, which provides cable service to the northern portion of the county and operates studios in Bowie, College Park, and Hyattsville, or by MetroVision, which serves the southern part of the county and has a studio in Capitol Heights.
Before they begin, users must take a three-hour course at Prime or MetroVision, where they learn the basics of how to operate a camera and edit videotape.
After finishing the course, users can join Prince Georgians on Camera to receive such services as an insurance policy for use of the equipment, free use of videotape, and membership in the "Producers Club," a group that meets occasionally to critique each other's work, listen to guest speakers and receive additional training in specific areas, such as script planning or direction.
Any "reasonable" program is allowed, Caliman said, as long as it is not obscene, does not contain advertising and is not intended for commercial purposes. All programs are screened by Prince Georgians on Camera before they are shown.
Membership costs $15 a year for individuals, $50 a year for nonprofit organizations, $75 for muncipalities, and $100 for businesses. Caliman said there are about 275 members, most of them individuals. Once bitten by the television bug, many come back for repeat performances. Imogene Ford Woodley, for instance, who has won several awards from Prince Georgians on Camera for her monthly "Kaleidoscope" talk show, focuses on mental health or education. In one show, she interviewed Chris Costner Sizemore, the woman whose multiple personality disorder was the basis for the book and movie, "The Three Faces of Eve."