The Story of Downtown Community Television
After tiring of major media's inconsequential moralizing, Manhattan's homeless produced their own documentary.
Over the past 20 years, thousands of New York City's under-funded community groups have learned to use video to tell their stories. A dedicated and impoverished bunch of film-makers at Downtown Community Television (DCTV) made sure they could.
Outside their hometown, DCTV is a well-known maverick in the world of professional news journalism. They helped pioneer video vérité and porta-pak documentaries. While risking their lives to film the underreported underside of modern civilization, they won eight Emmy awards.
In the 70’s they filmed Cuba and post-war Vietnam for PBS, suggesting to American audiences through straight, unmanipulated images that the US government was seriously misguided to fight these revolutions. PBS blacklisted DCTV after nearly a decade of this kind of radical footage.
In the 80’s, working independently for NBC, they covered growing US pollution and poverty. They filmed US sponsored repression in Central America, raising the hackles of conservative network executives. The grudge of one who became network president made DCTV victim to the most overt censorship within the US media during the Gulf War.
DCTV began in the early 70’s, showing videos on New York street corners from the back of an old van, covering food co-ops, local politics and neighborhood organizing. With their youthful enthusiasm they won one of the first video small grants from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, contracting to hold video workshops, film cultural activities and show the results on the streets. In pushing themselves to fulfill an agreement which was almost beyond them, they impressed the city, which continued to give them just enough money to live with their equipment in a bare studio in the poorer parts of Chinatown.
In a few years they collected enough friends, admirers and contacts that their documentaries aired nationally on public television and won awards. They usually were unable to cover their costs while working with PBS, but getting shows out to big audiences was worth sacrifices.
After being blacklisted nationally by PBS, a local PBS director, frustrated with his own system, sent DCTV to a friend at NBC. The network was relatively flush with cash in those days, and the producer was open-minded enough to know the advantages of an independent operation. He admired their willingness to die to get footage, so he sent them into the middle of the Chinese-Vietnamese war.
During the 80’s NBC bought anything made by DCTV’s Jon Alpert, whose documentaries were as terrifying as they were funny. Comfortable US living rooms became less so when Alpert’s first world camera went places that nice people were supposed to avoid. NBC producers, despite the enormous controversy every time they aired something of Alpert’s, were compelled by the style and effect to continue paying for the honest and uncompromising perspective.
Alpert turned the NBC money over to DCTV, to help out the community programs. These expanded widely, strengthening the alternative video scene in New York. DCTV bought and repaired a dilapidated Victorian fire-house in Chinatown (at right), which many of them moved into, and which became a permanent center for community video production and a theatre for forums and video festivals.
Such relatively good times couldn’t last, and neither could the patience of the conservatives at NBC. The total news blackout of the US war in the Persian gulf made Alpert and the DCTV folk unhappy. It was obvious that there was more going on than the government wanted known, so they decided to go get the story. After making arrangements to travel with former Johnson administration Attorney General Ramsey Clark, the executive director of NBC nightly news authorized the production. Just as they were going out the door, a call came from a vice president at NBC nastily telling them not to go. DCTV figured the NBC people might have their wires crossed, but in any case they needed to go to the gulf: what was broadcast so far was simply too thin.
Jon Alpert thinks he and DCTV were being a little, perhaps willfully, naïve. The president of NBC, Michael Gartner, had evidently been waiting for a very long time to shoot them down, and this gave him the opportunity. While DCTV was in the Gulf and Ramsey Clark was condemning the US for war crimes, Gartner cancelled plans to air the results. But when Alpert arrived and showed the tapes to Tom Brokaw, NBC anchor, and other NBC News people, they decided to put it on the air. Two hours before going on, Gartner overruled everyone, denounced Ramsey Clark and dictated that nothing by Alpert would ever be shown again on NBC. End of relationship.
If more people in the upper echelons of network news, who consider themselves responsible journalists, had bothered to stand up to their bosses and take the risks Alpert did, this war would have been better covered, and might even have been prevented. That the anchors didn't stand up is a sign that the economic power the company holds over their news staff is considered nearly absolute.
Since Alpert’s firing, times have been hard at DCTV, especially since this coincided with massive cuts in grants, particularly to small activist outfits. But the huge support group that DCTV helped build in the New York community has proved very resilient, so the relative poverty is at least stable. Several programs have proven especially useful for the underfinanced community.
The “works-in-progress” group, according to DCTV Director of Community Affairs Hye Jung Park, is an effort to foster a cooperative spirit among fledgling documentary producers. Television usually sparks competition for money and air time, an attitude typical of the establishment culture that alternative film-makers fight against. So, on a regular basis producers using DCTV’s facilities, some 400 groups a year, meet to critique each others work, network to get their material aired, and see if they can offer each other a hand with production. These regular meetings are a big hit with the local alternative video community.
Competition for money and airtime is usually fierce. In contrast, DCTV's “works-in-progress” meetings foster cooperation among documentary producers.
Hye Jung also acts as a kind of agent, a non-profit one, working hard to get videos to audiences, either through cable, at universities or sometimes on broadcast TV. Her success can be seen occasionally on PBS, no longer blacklisting DCTV, where she gives footage to alternative media shows such as The 90’s.
Along with other alternative media organizations in New York such as Globalvision and Deep Dish TV, Hye Jung tries to connect technically trained film-makers with organizations that are otherwise unable to put their message in video form. The alternative video community in the city is extremely diverse and active, and DCTV gives their space, equipment and expertise to those who need it.
Alpert and the other producers at DCTV continue to make documentaries, though not nearly as many as when working for NBC. Their Emmy Awards have not helped much: the news business is in recession too. NBC president Gartner slashed the news budget severely: why pay for good reporting when the advertising dollars come in without it? This was easier to justify after General Electric's takeover of NBC put financial pressure on the network. The rest of the news industry is in a similar state, which certainly encouraged the complacent reporting of the Gulf war.
Despite all this DCTV survives, through the skill and cooperation developed in their local and international activism. The disarmingly honest nature of DCTV’s professional footage, forged in their neighborhood work, makes them sufficiently successful to fund further innovative, grassroots video-making. This is just the sort of radical positive feedback loop required to push America's conscience off the sofa and out into the real world.
Image from DCTV's 1991 catalog: DCTV's Jon Alpert interviews a Philippine New People's Army Guerilla. Their fight against the Marcos Government is chronicled in an Emmy Award-Winning documentary. Photo: Maryann DeLeo.
A note on DCTV's Firehouse
January 30, 2014
The story "Global and Local Cameras" emerged from conversations, interviews and visits, in 1990 and 1991, with Jon Alpert of DCTV. The Manhattan-based non-profit had just obtained and restored a 19th-century firehouse, turning it into a specialty community center, committed to independent film. To understand how special-purpose community centers work, it's important to visit them, and then organize your own. In that sense, DCTV was a contributing factor to projects I helped launch, for example CAT and The Tango Center.
Among the huge number of projects begun and produced at the DCTV Firehouse, is the independent news show Democracy Now! with Amy Goodman. DCTV's tireless community service, and Jon Alpert's stunning and influential films, are both alive and well, over twenty years later. He directed Redemption, nominated for an Oscar in 2013, and a number of films about wounded veterans with the late James Gandolfini, a DCTV board member. These anti-war films have become accepted across the political spectrum.
With the now pervasive recognition of the importance of eyewitness accounts, and the cameras to film them, it seems that the whole world is finally engaged in DCTV's mission.