TAMPA — Florida’s last public access channel is under construction — structurally and organizationally.
Structurally, the Tampa Bay Community Network is building a new multi-camera television studio, podcast recording studio and editing suite in their facility on the first floor of the former University Mall, now rebranded as RITHM@Uptown. That work is ongoing, but the television studio will be available this week.
Organizationally, the network has a new executive director, new streaming options and is changing its primary mission — which since its inception in 1985 was providing Hillsborough County residents with a television outlet for free speech.
“Providing television channels for speech is still a mission and important, but can’t remain our focus when the internet can provide that outlet,” said Antonia McCutcheon, who took over as executive director in July and has been with the network for 24 years. “So, now we want to focus on training people for free on how to use video to promote their free speech.”
Free training for county residents who are at least 18 has always been a key component of the network operated by nonprofit Speak Up Tampa Bay.
But renewed support from the City of Tampa and the county allows them to do more.
Now, classes with topics that include editing, animation, multi-camera shoots and creating YouTube videos are offered online as well as in person. Once trainees complete their courses, the network connects them with CareerSource Tampa Bay to help residents find jobs.
“College isn’t for everyone,” said Tyler Martinolich, the Hillsborough film commissioner and chairman of the network’s board. “Now, when that is the case, we can step in as an effective training program to help people find gainful employment within the visual media industry.”
The studio is available to those who complete the training courses and want to produce a show to be broadcast on the network’s channels — Frontier 30 and 36, Spectrum 638 and 639 and Comcast 20 — or streaming options.
“We now air on Apple TV, iOS, Android Fire TV and Roku,” McCutcheon said. “We’re more available than ever.”
Such shows run 30 to 60 minutes and are added to the network’s schedule, which also includes classic movies, documentaries, educational programming and religious services.
There are no in-studio community-produced shows currently airing on the network, but slots are available beginning in September.
The training and the studio are funded primarily by the city and county, which each provided $200,000 this year.
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“We’re thankful the city recognizes we are a benefit,” McCutcheon said.
The network had been cut from the city budget since 2017.
The county’s funding is different from in the past, McCutcheon said. They used to reimburse the network up to $200,000 for training on a per student basis. Now, they provide that money in a lump sum regardless of the metrics.
“They understand that there is a lot more going on behind the scenes than just training,” said McCutcheon. “We need equipment for that training.”
Before the internet provided outlets like YouTube and TikTok, public access channels throughout the nation made stars out of their less inhibited residents.
The Tampa Bay Community Network’s cast of characters made it must-see TV and a part of the local pop culture.
“We were regular viewing for a lot of people,” McCutcheon said.
Jerry Cantor dressed as Superman and spent an hour taking calls. Mariette Coulter taught French using Barbie Dolls. Sondra Pill sang cover songs out of tune. And Joe Redner discussed current events and interviewed guests on his show, which once saw a guest tossing a chair toward the strip club king.
Other shows showcased nudity.
In the early 2000s, then-County Commissioner Rhonda Storms referred to such programming as pornographic. She tried but failed to shut down the network.
The internet shuttered public access channels throughout the nation. Online options took the talent and viewers.
Tampa’s has survived in large part because it receives public funding for its training program, Martinolich said. “It’s never just been about generating shows here. It’s also been about empowering the community to make their own content through training.”
And, rather than seeing the internet as competition for public access, Martinolich sees synergy.
The best online videos are well lit, shot and edited, which takes training.
“We’re giving people within the community the tools to be able to launch their own social media platforms” he said. “Without those tools, they might be intimidated to try.”