DCTV: Our History

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Stone age of Video-- DCTV was founded in 1972 in the stone age of video. Working odd jobs as waitress and taxi driver, Keiko Tsuno and Jon Alpert were infected with the video-bug when they first took their video cameras in the streets of Chinatown. They also began teaching free video production workshops in their loft on Canal Street. "We had minimum materials and maximum enthusiasm."--Keiko Tsuno

The Mobile Unit--there was no cable TV in those days, but with funding from the New York Department of Cultural Affairs, Jon and Keiko brought their "community" productions to the streets. "This was our first community out reach program. We would park on Canal Street. This wasn't such a good location, because of the noise from the traffic heading toward Brooklyn. We learned that to engage our busy Chinatown audience we couldn't be self-indulgent or we would end up with an empty sidewalk. The tapes had to be short and interesting to the time-pressed audience that was hurrying from the noodle shops to the sweat shops. 'PS 23 needs a Chinese Principal' was very popular on the street. We showed Chinese Opera, and English lessons too."--Jon Alpert

Free Video--From the beginning Downtown Community Television Center had a commitment to sharing knowledge. In the early 70's the newly formed DCTV was the only place that offered all their services free. DCTV continued to offer free video production workshops in the loft on Canal Street. When the government funding stopped for two years, the workshops went on. Even with the onslaught of Reagonomics in 1980, DCTV continued to offer Free Video. Free basic video instruction remains one of DCTV's top priorities.

1/2" Color Portapak--Every Sunday, DCTVwould organize a baseball game in Central Park; the DCTV Docu-Demons against the diplomats of the Cuban Mission at the U.N. The historical record indicates that DCTV lost every game for two years. However, this good sportsmanship endeared them to the Cubans. When DCTV received visas to film in Havana, they beat all the networks who had been trying to get in since the Revolution. Furthermore, with the help of Keiko's uncle in Japan and her cousin Yoko, they were able to buy two of the first color Portapaks. Teaching themselves as they went along, they improvised to get around the limitations of their primitive equipment and their undeveloped skills. To shoot the dark-skinned Cubans, they needed to get very close into their subject. It forced the beginning of a style which would become their trademark.

When they showed the footage to NBC, "...the engineers guessed it was 16 mm, then 35 mm, then two-inch, one-inch until they ran out of guesses....That afternoon NBC called Sony and ordered 100 machines. It was NBC's first step into ENG."--Jon Alpert.

The baby carriage--The next generation of "portable" video equipment consisted of a large camera, a control unit, a recorder and a heavy battery belt. The whole setup weighed 50 lbs. and required 2000 watts of lighting equipment. To remain portable Jon and Keiko needed to come up with some means of transport. "A baby carriage we thought! It's good for carrying something delicate and at the same time it is rather disarming. People will look at it and start laughing and while they are laughing at you, you start taping"--Jon Alpert

"Fidel Castro noticed us at the end of an entourage of reporters. He must have thought, 'Who are those strange looking people with the baby carriage?'. So he came over to us and asked, 'What is that?' and Jon said, 'A baby carriage'. Fidel gave us a look like 'Duh! I can see that'. Jon was too scared to ask any questions and Fidel just smiled and walked away. Jon couldn't sleep that night because he had let us down. We said we wouldn't work with him again if he didn't show some courage. The next day, Jon almost tackled Fidel to get an interview"--Keiko Tsuno

Commitment to Youth--in 1976 DCTV started its first high school program for "at-risk" youth. Since then they have been teaching the television arts to hundreds of inner city youth who have participated in video production workshops, media literacy programs, and the annual Youth Video Festival. These productions, conceived and created by the teens, have won numerous national and international awards and spurred the kids onto higher education and employment.

NBC-- In 1978 Jon and Keiko went to Vietnam to make Vietnam: Picking Up The Pieces for PBS. Cora Weiss, one of DCTV's Board members, was instrumental in getting the visas to Hanoi and DCTV was the the first American TV crew in Vietnam since the U.S.-Vietnamese War. In 1979 Cora invited the Foreign minister to North Vietnam to a party at her house. From his worried remarks, DCTV's clever staff, deduced that there was going to be a war between his country and China, and they immediately applied for visas. By this time Jon & Keiko were in the process of getting blacklisted by PBS. They got their visas just as war broke out. Of all the networks only NBC had the wisdom and foresight to sponsor the trip. It was the beginning of a unique collaboration between a small independent TV center and a major network. DCTV finally had a large national audience.


The Abandoned Firehouse--The heat and the noise in the little loft on Canal Street was unimaginable. But when Jon came up with his plan to move DCTV to an abandoned firehouse everyone thought that he was nuts. The building was full of rubble when DCTV moved into the second floor. There was no plumbing or electricity. For the first few months everyone carried around a hammer instead of a camera. By the time the roof was patched and everything legal and usable, (taking about $450,000 in real money and a sweat equity) the city seized the building from the owner. What followed was two years of lawyers, documents, and paying rent to the city until they sold DCTV the building. In return the city demanded the rebuilding of the sinking foundation. They estimated to cost $200,000. It actually cost $800,000. DCTV had a new home.

3rd Avenue--DCTV's stylistic breakthrough came with the production of Third Avenue: Only the Strong Survive (1980), a story about the lives of six people living or working on 3rd Avenue. With Keiko pregnant and unable to hold the camera, Jon Alpert took up the camera himself and became both reporter and camera operator. This allowed the subject to speak directly to the camera, spawning what is now known as the verité style of documentary video. Initially it looked more like the shaketé style with Jon's fledgling and bungling cineamatography, but Third Avenue went on to win DCTV's first National Emmy Award.

At Home in the World--Throughout the 80's with the support of NBC, DCTV's camera and crew went wherever there was war or a need for honest reporting and sympathetic hearts; The Phillipines, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Angola, Chiapas, and Iraq. Often, they were the only reporters observing events affecting the lives of millions of people.

HBO--DCTV's relationship with NBC ended with the Gulf War in Iraq. "We were the only independent documentary reporters in Baghdad during the war. But our footage documenting the death and destruction in civilian neighborhoods was a shocking message, so instead of broadcasting it, NBC killed the messenger."--Jon Alpert.

Undaunted, DCTV formed a new relationship with HBO, producing stunning one hour programs like One Year In A Life of Crime, Rape: Cries From The Heartland, Lock-Up: The Prisoners of Riker's Island, High on Crack Street, and Life of Crime, part II. "We love HBO and They love us"--Jon Alpert

Renovation--By1990 the Firehouse was in need of further refurbishment's both structurally and technically. The old stairwell was replace by a central elevator to allow handicap access. The wood-burning stoves were left unlit when central heating was put in. We moved from the analog age into the digital with AVID editing suites and DVC cameras. 1996 we launched our own web page to expand our distribution and exposure.

Global Exchange--The world is changing. The U.S. government sponsored DCTV to go to Russia to teach community video. Our youth exchanged their personal stories with other kids in Brazil, and our ProTV students travelled to Moscow and Siberia. (They are still wondering if it was for education or punishment).

Cyberstudio for the Arts-- DCTV build its interactive television studio on the third floor of the firehouse. A marriage of Cable TV to Internet Broadcasting. We aimed to change the nature and intensify the impact of public-access television. The Cyberstudio will take Manhattan Neighborhood Network (MNN) ラ the nation's premiere and largest cable network with 500,000 subscribers ラ to a new level. MNN chose to make DCTV a satellite studio site because they knew that we are devoted to facilitating the production of high-quality documentaries, cultural programs, and public-service news coverage. By combining cablecasts with simulcasts on the web, we began to attain high-quality programming and excellent interactivity for all our programs.

Reaching the disenfranchised communities Media Instruction for the Disabled-

DCTV commensed with it's first educational programs designed to teach media to the a community often overlooked. (MIFD) was inspired by the dedication of our staff member, John Kaplan who was the cooridinator for the program. People with a variety of physical and mental disablities were recruited to participate. Their first works dealt with issues of blindness and deafness. Our second season expanded for the documentary form into our cyberstudio where the participants experimented with interactive discussion on issues that concerned them: education, transportation and Inclusion.

Envision-TV--Video education for homeless youth. Members of two shelters the Amboy Neighborhood Center (Brooklyn) and Help Crotona! (Bronx) began a relationship with DCTV. Our first program began as a weekly exercise in video instruction and story creation at the firehouse. With each semester we improved our ability to reach these troubled youths and improve the quality of their work.

Cyberstudio for the Arts--Live from Downtown had its first successful season which featured 12 artists from lower Manhattan. Each weekly show consisted of a performance, a short documentary and an interactive Q&A.

September 11th, 2001--located just 15 blocks from what came to be know as "ground zero", DCTV was in the heart of a stricken neighborhood. Our firehouse doors remained open throughout the crisis, even if the full staff could not get south of Canal Street. FEMA, the federal Emergency Management Agency used DCTV's space as an operations base and safe headquarters. For two weeks following the disaster, 1,500 chioldren from nearby Tribeca gathered for artistic and cultural activities on our ground level.

Afghanistan - In January of 2002, journalists from DCTV traveled to Kandehar to report on the US involvement Afghanistan. The trip resulted in the production of "Afghanistan: From Ground Zero to Ground Zero".

 "Afghanistan" is the story of Masuda Sultan, a 23 year-old Afghan-American woman, who was born in Kandehar, fled when she was 5 and now wanted to return to see what had become of her country. Masuda was delighted to see the yoke of the Taliban lifted, but horrified to find out what had happened to her family. After fleeing Kandehar to the village of Chowkar-Karez, 19 of her relatives were gunned down on Oct. 22, 2001, when American bombers targeted their village.

Although segments of the program were shown on channel 13 and CBS, no American network would air the entire video.

Democracy Now - DCTV invited Amy Goodman and her team at Democracy Now to set up shop on the top floor of the firehouse. They are here from dawn till dusk, shooting their radio/TV program or preparing for a broadcast. It's no longer surprising to see Amy or one of her crew, gracefully sliding down the fire pole on their way to the third floor bathroom. To learn more about democracy now, visit their website at www.democracynow.org.

IMNY - In the summer of 2002, DCTV was commissioned to create and execute a TV show that focused on New York City youth. Headed by Dempsey Rice and supervised by Matthew O'Neill, IMNY our half-hour TV show is a journalistic adventure for and by New York City's public school students. The show explores the unique stories, neighborhoods and challenges of our City's young people and interactive conversations between the youth of New York and relevant civic, political and social leaders New York City. The 25 episodes could be seen on WNYE, Channel 25 (in the New York, Metropolitan area) every Monday night at 8:30 pm. For more information visit www.wnye.org/imny/index.asp.

LFDT - Live From Downtown (It's not a place, it's a state of mind), moved from its Monday night slot on Manhattan Neighborhood Network (MNN) to WNYE, a PBS affiliated channel, which reaches over 500,000 viewers. This third season, which was produced by Robin Schatell of Urban Arts Productions (www.urbanartspro.com), included performers from P.S. 122, Dance Theater Workshop, HERE Art Center, The Kitchen, Art at the St. Ann's Symphony Space; Band of the Week Highlights: Hot Spots on The Angel Orensanz Center, Bowery Poetry club, The Knitting Factory, Zipper Theater and more.

ConnecTV - DCTV started the first program specifically for people with disabilities in 2000. In that first Media Instruction for the Disabled class (MIFD), we trained eight producers in the art and craft of documentary filmmaking and helped them create two fifteen-minute original pieces. Now in 2002, with the generous support of the Rockefeller Foundation, DCTV expanded its program to span three years and include twenty producers and renamed it ConnecTV. With a greater number of participants and expanded access to equipment and class time, we are training a hard-working group of students in both documentary and studio production. So far, the students have produced three documentaries around issues that concern them; Therapeutic Riding, Gays with disabilities, and Exercise.

Cybercar / Speak Up New York! - The Cybercar finally became a reality in the fall of 2002, just in time to hit the road for Speak Up New York! a project that DCTV designed to take on one of our nation's most persistent and pressing problems: the growing disconnect between American youth and political participation.

The Cybercar, a media mobile for the 21st century, was formerly a passenger bus that carried missionaries around the American south. With a generous grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, it was reborn as a fully functional mobile television production studio, custom-created to sew the seeds of democracy with state-of-the-art equipment provided by Avid, Miranda, Panasonic, GlobalStreams and SmartVision. The beat-up black and white television sets of DCTV's first TV-truck have been replaced with a Times-Square style video wall, built into the side of the Cybercar.

This updated mobile unit, traveled all over New York State for one month prior to the November elections. The goal: to engage and educate young people about the election process and to encourage them to question their political representatives. The month-long expedition ended in an hour-long documentary called Speak Up New York! Which was broadcast on Channel 13 on November 4th, 2002.

Peace rally, February 15th, 2003 - The Cybercar was host to Democracy Now and Amy Goodman for the television production surrounding the historic Peace Rallies held in New York City and all over the world on February 15th, 2003. Working together with other groups like Free Speech TV, Paper Tiger TV and the Independent Media Center, the truck was situated just behind the Rally's center stage and on that freezing cold day, served as a staging area for speakers, reporters and technicians.

 Bridge to Baghdad : A Youth Dialogue - In a time of escalating international tension, Bridge to Baghdad: a youth dialogue (a special program from the Downtown Community Television Center and NextNext Entertainment) gave young people the opportunity to speak up in a world in which they will inherit the consequences (good and bad) of our/their leaders' decisions.

 The dialogue featured American panelists speaking from DCTV's Cyberstudio and young Iraqis, speaking from Baghdad in a live discussion that transcended time zones, travel restrictions and national borders. Reporters, Jon Alpert, Brent Renaud and Craig Renaud recorded the stories of 4 Iraqi college students living in Baghdad. They then used a satellite uplink to transfer their TV reports and the live discussion into the New York studio.

Group Name: 
Downtown Community TV Center
Group Dates: 
1972 - present
Group Location: 
New York City