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The Tucson Community Cable Corporation Celebrates its 15th birthday.

By Jim Nintzel

JUNE 21, 1999:  BELIEVE IT OR not, the Tucson Community Cable Corporation is 15 years old.

"I'm shocked that we went beyond 15 minutes," laughs Sam Behrend, executive director of the public access facility. "People didn't give us 15 weeks."

But the plucky outfit has persevered through much adversity, becoming one of the top public access organizations in the country and allowing thousands of Tucsonans to realize their Tinseltown dreams of producing television programs. And only rarely has the County Attorney's Office had to intervene.

From political conspiracy pundits like Shane Eden and Joe Sweeney to aspiring televangelists like Bill Bowler and the Prophet Alpha, TCCC's community producers have brought a unique blend of low-budget programming into cable-ready living rooms. In 1998 alone, members produced more than 1,800 hours of new programming, and TCCC's staff trained more than 535 members in the use of video and audio equipment. Studios saw nearly 5,000 hours of use, editing rooms saw more than 13,000 hours of action, and field equipment was checked out more than 620 times.

Although it's sometimes hard to discern by the day-to-day programming, public access was a lofty idea in the early 1980s. In the decades since its invention, television had spurred a revolution in communications, displacing print media as the primary source of information for the public. But because television production was so expensive, the medium remained beyond the reach of all but a tiny few. Public access was seen as a remedy that would put the means of production into the hands of the common man.

When Cox Communications won the city's cable franchise in the early 1980s, the company promised to provide facilities for the public to create programming. A handful of people decided to take them up on that promise, forming TCCC in 1984. And the rest, as they say, is television history.

Today, TCCC has an annual budget of about $1 million, which comes from a small percentage of Tucsonans' cable bills. Although some of the companies that have inherited the cable franchise in Tucson have been less than supportive of TCCC, Behrend has nothing but kind words for the current provider--ironically, also the original provider--Cox Communications. "They're great," Behrend says. "It's the best relationship we've had with a company. They're very supportive."

Behrend also credits "an extremely supportive mayor and council, a number of different mayors and city councils who really believed in the diversity of our community, and that it should be showcased in this way."

Besides the UFO exposés and local music videos, TCCC's facilities have, in just the last year, allowed more than 30 local environmental and social-service organizations to televise their messages: groups including the Tucson Audubon Society, the Southern Arizona AIDS Foundation, the American Association of Retired People, Casa de los Niños, the Humane Society of Tucson and the Tucson Urban League, to name just a few.

TCCC is already preparing for the latest telecommunications revolution on the Internet. The organization has put a handful of iMacs in its lobby for public use. "Anyone can just walk off the street and browse, or send and receive e-mail," says Behrend.

But that's just the beginning. Behrend says TCCC's programming will soon be available on the Internet.

"The Internet has really become a free marketplace of ideas and individual publishing," Behrend says. "We will be streaming our TV channels onto our website in the very near future. It's another way of reaching people with videos being produced in the community."

Ultimately, Behrend hopes to have programming available on demand on the Web in a searchable database. "I think the idea of just running a schedule doesn't have that many more years left," he says. "It's not friendly enough to people who want the information they want when they want it. The viewers' habits are changing. So we have to change, too."

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