White Chocolate did not report a missing TV station. No one called 911 — not the guy who used to rant in a swastika armband, nor the guy who clobbered Joe Redner with a stool after Redner called him fat.
None of those characters who achieved notoriety in the wild days of public access TV uttered a peep of alarm when Tampa Bay Community Network recently seemed to disappear. Did anyone notice? Or did viewers simply believe that TBCN was yet another casualty of a national trend toward extinction?
As desperate as times are, TBCN lives. It has completed a nightmare, epic move from its beloved home of 25 years at the University of Tampa to a storefront at University Mall, near the food court and beside a tattoo parlor.
The mall has already proved itself as an auspicious location. It came in handy during one of the first postmove tapings — a new feature called "Weather Kids."
Twin 6-year-olds Nina and Katie Provatas had volunteered to look adorable while introducing a daily weather report. They filled the adorable bill, indeed, when they showed up for their first taping in beautiful dresses. Stools for them stood ready in front of a giant green screen.
These digital days, almost all such tapings are done on green screen. Backgrounds — such as a beach and golden sunset — get inserted later.
But wait! Cut!
Disaster. Nina and Katie wore beautiful green dresses. On the green screen, they looked like disembodied aliens.
But wait! We're in a mall!
The girls grabbed their mom and her credit card and minutes later reappeared in new dresses.
They smiled into the camera. "It's a gorgeous sunny day. We're going to the pool."
• • •
Public access TV has changed in so many ways. Councils and commissions don't want to fund them much anymore. Legislation has turned against them. Cable companies stick them in the outer galaxies. You must surf all the way to 949 and 950 to find TBCN on Bright House.
In the past five years, more than 600 community access stations have died. They once posed frequent tests of First Amendment rights. Now those battle lines have shifted to the Internet. Even the nutbars seem to have gone elsewhere — mostly to YouTube.
Back in the day, White Chocolate dressed as a nun and showed videos of a woman masturbating in the shower. Someone else aired a tape of a punk rocker pooping on stage. The swastika guy railed against blacks and Jews. Stripper mogul Redner was TKO'd by a stool.
White Chocolate now goes by his real name, Charles Perkins. He's a churchgoing candidate for the Tampa City Council. He thinks strip clubs are awful.
One may still make an offensive fool of himself or herself on TBCN, but people now use it to call attention to leukemia, to earnestly explain transit taxes, to talk up the Victorian Holiday Stroll.
It just hasn't made it any easier to stay in business.
• • •
The move came at the worst time. For the last two years, TBCN has done without help from Hillsborough County, which once kicked in $350,000 a year. Last year, the city of Tampa cut its annual donation by $250,000. The station lost 40 percent of its staff. About the same time, the University of Tampa announced plans to demolish the studio. Suddenly, executive director Louise Thompson needed $70,000 to start over at the mall.
The trend aimed downward. What was happening here was happening everywhere. Community support moved on. So did many of those Wayne's World dudes who once played a tuba or read bad poetry on public access TV. There are now countless other ways to be a media star. Justin Bieber chose YouTube.
Even cable TV is different. Viewers here have 948 other choices before they even get to TBCN. The station isn't sure how many people get that far.
Executive director Thompson makes her own strong case for relevancy. Even the nutbars are part of TBCN's heritage of relentless defense of First Amendment rights. It successfully fought Hills- borough County to keep those rights in 2003 — no matter how offensive White Chocolate was.
It's also a place where wonks can hash it out. One of Thompson's favorite memories is a debate she hosted over setbacks on the Hillsborough River. It changed some minds. Another favorite memory is the motley collection of public access stars — the garage guitarists, the shower singers, the almost-funny comedians — who hung out after hours, sometimes until 3 in the morning, sharing food and stories.
YouTube could never be that.
It's also a place where a preacher can come in and learn to use television cameras and sophisticated editing programming, then put his sermon or his gospel choir on TV every Sunday for $75.
Evalio Harrell has been doing that for St. John Cathedral, a little church of 400, for 20 years. He produces, works the lights, directs and edits.
He has never turned to the Internet.
TBCN is starting another new feature where for 25 bucks anyone can go on TV for a minute to sing happy birthday or proclaim an anniversary. Technically, someone could do that while wearing a thong and burning Korans.
But those people seem to have found a different public, and a different access.
John Barry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2258.