Youth Video Exchange Network: Building Digital Distribution for Public Access Youth Channels

These days posting video content to the internet has never been easier. Independent producers, known as videobloggers, or vodcasters, operate their own internet TV stations, syndicating regularly produced segments and shows across the web with the click of a few buttons. It would seem like practically anyone (with a camera, a computer, and an internet connection) can get his/her voice out. However, long before there was, Revver, or YouTube, there was public access TV—local community-based cable stations.
Public access TV is a non-commercial community alternative to the mainstream media. Nationwide there are over 1,200 Public Access television centers which provide ordinary people with the equipment and training needed to make their own television programs, and to have these programs shown on cable television. Public access TV is based on the principle that everyone has a right to freedom of expression. In a world where the media plays such an important role, public access TV allows citizens to express their First Amendment right of free speech through television.
In 1972, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for the first time described cable television as an “electronic soapbox” and guaranteed the right of communities to have access to equipment and airtime. Under this FCC decision all cable television companies must put time aside for educational and Public Access TV. This decision was based on the recognition that cable television companies use “public-rights-of-way;” cables run under public streets, on highways and on other city property. Therefore, using these public places, cable television companies must compensate the public by allowing the public to have television “access.”
Cable access is still an amazing resource for local non-commercial distribution and here in New York City, more and more youth media organizations are getting their media out over the channels of Manhattan Neighborhood Network (MNN), specifically during the block of programming on Monday evenings, Saturdays, and Sundays programmed by the Youth Channel.
Since 2000, MNN Youth Channel has been the youth-serving arm of Manhattan’s public access TV center, Manhattan Neighborhood Network. We partner with schools, libraries, and community organizations to provide media production trainings and media literacy workshops to organizations in need throughout NYC. We provide an accessible non-commercial distribution outlet for New York’s thriving youth media scene by showcasing a block of 20 (and growing) hours of media by youth, for youth every week on one of MNN’s public access cable channels. On channel #34 in Manhattan or streaming live at on Monday evenings or during the days on Saturdays and Sundays, viewers can tune into the freshest productions that have been submitted by organizations around the city and across the country.
The natural extension of creating such a non-commercial distribution outlet is to develop a network of like-minded stations in local communities around the country and to begin to articulate a model of how existing access centers can begin to open their doors to those under the age of 18. MNN, being one of the first (and largest) centers to experiment with youth services, bore some of the responsibility to visualize such a network. In 2002, a collaborative project called NYMAP (the National Youth Media Access Project) was born as a partnership between MNN Youth Channel and stations in several other cities, including Atlanta, GA, Denver, CO, Seattle, WA, St. Paul, MN, Grand Rapids, MI, and Lowell, MA.
National Youth Media Access Project
The newfound NYMAP partners developed personal relationships with one another, modeled services and programs after each other, shared resources, and began bicycling tapes from one ‘youth channel’ to the other (bicycling is when master tapes are sent via postal service from site to site, dubbed, and put on the air). NYMAP sought to nurture the right of free speech, to strengthen the much-needed presence of alternative and youth voices, and to connect young mediamakers from diverse backgrounds.
Beyond increasing the exposure of media produced was the idea that a collective national voice promoting youth media is louder than one local voice. NYMAP partners were in agreement that there was tremendous value for local non-commercial television outlets to devote programming hours to youth-produced video—a growing trend in cable access.
However, the volume of material to be bicycled became overwhelming from 2002 and beyond. Due to the lack of an existing archive or catalogue listing of what tapes were in stock, the bicycling of these tapes started to falter. As staff members changed and internal priorities and funding scenarios shifted at the various partner sites (MNN being no exception), the sustainability of NYMAP became questionable. Though there was still sporadic tape bicycling, it had significantly declined as a result. Indeed, NYMAP was a living network of passionate individuals and cooperative organizations with great potential for collaboration, but it lacked the infrastructure to support its mission, let alone the ability to expand.
Youth Video Exchange Network
The building of the Youth Video Exchange Network (YVXN) was the answer to solve this problem. YVXN began as an examination and analysis of the needs of the existing NYMAP network. We found that, in addition to sharing programming content, there is a real interest in archiving content, sharing resources—such as curricula and administrative materials—and facilitating collaborative productions. So, in the fall of 2006, with grant support from the Ford Foundation, Manhattan Neighborhood Network’s Youth Channel took a leadership role in developing the participatory web portal that would become YVXN: The web portal was set to provide the bicycling of videos needed across the partnership.
The project’s primary technical focus was to find a way to share high-quality videos that could be easily turned around and re-aired at an access center 1,000 miles away, without increasing a need for already-overextended staff resources. However, we wanted to create a model network that was more than a technology tool. By utilizing web 2.0 and social networking tools that would ensure (in fact, require) participation and content creation from its constituency, we reached our goal.
So, in mid-2006 a core group of NYMAP partners—Manhattan Neighborhood Network, St. Paul Neighborhood Network, Portland Community Media, and Grand Rapids Community Media, and Atlanta’s People TV—was established to create an advisory board of leading cable access partners, using the web portal as our main interface for interaction, discussion, and sharing.
Our five core NYMAP partners were brought together by a year of successful testing and troubleshooting. This test phase has seen the transfer of over 20 hours of hi-resolution youth-produced video content over the internet. Much of this programming has been played back on local channels during blocks of programming dedicated to youth-produced work. By syndicating youth-produced work from other parts of the country, creating a virtual space for cataloging work that has been produced, and providing a space for new collaborative productions, YVXN is fulfilling its mission—to support the continued exchange of youth-produced broadcast-quality video among public access centers across the country and world.
Next Steps, New Technology
This type of networking (sharing resources and content) is valuable for access organizations and viewers alike. As internal operations at Public, Educational, and Governmental (PEG) stations around the country have begun to go digital, a major identified need has been to solve problems inherent in bicycling analog programs between stations. The costs, staff demands, and timeliness of sharing programs have always limited the ability of producers to efficiently distribute programming. In the case of MNN Youth Channel, access to media shared over YVXN is a bank of material which enables us to enrich our programming block with videos from youth around the country. As a result of this exchange, young people can more accessibly represent themselves and view the perspective of teens outside their local network.
Over the next year, our focus will be on establishing a National Youth Committee, consisting of young people who will be paid a stipend to participate in and promote the YVXN website, as well as a YVXN Steering Group made up of member organizations and representatives to forge future direction of the project. The Youth Video Exchange Network will grow to be a network that not only includes Youth Access administrators, but youth producers, teachers, and community video programmers, who can utilize hi-resolution video for non-commercial purposes.
We are currently utilizing a variety of free and open source tools for compression of shared videos, in the form of MPEG-4 files. These files are of substantially higher quality than video typically distributed and viewed on the web. As more members download the file, a peer-to-peer network is formed, allowing users to subscribe to auto-downloads, receive an email notification when a download is complete, and easily return the files to whatever format is appropriate for playback on the local public access station.
It is no surprise to media educators, administrators, and producers that emerging technologies and digital tools are changing the media landscape. Indeed, the field of youth media is on the forefront of developing a critical literacy and awareness of new media. Amidst these changes, the Youth Video Exchange Network wants to create new models of sharing our resources and media based on the values of non-commercialism and participation. Using new technology to continue and strengthen the “public” in cable public access is spreading youth made video from a variety of demographics across the nation. Through a network of public access channels that now easily share high quality (and broadcast worthy) video amongst one another, youth voice can be shared, disseminated, and distributed as quickly as YouTube, but on a non-commercial community alternative to the mainstream media.
We want to explore this terrain with you. If you are a youth-producer, educator, or administrator interested in learning more about joining the network, email
Andrew Lynn lives is a media worker living in New York State. He is the Technical Coordinator of the Youth Video Exchange Network, and has been the Education Coordinator with the MNN Youth Channel for the past 3 years.