A night for public access to shine

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – About 60 people sip coffee and eat pie and cake in the cafeteria at Hasbro's corporate headquarters in Pawtucket. Two large video screens stand on either side of a wooden podium where the master of ceremonies for the night-Jerry Gibbons appears.

For most of the year, the people who make public access television in Rhode Island don't get much recognition. The men and women of statewide interconnect A, B, and C do their work for free, in between paying jobs or after they've retired. But one day in November, the television creators have a chance to shine at the annual Rhode Island Public, Educational, and Governmental access or Peg Awards.

No one is exactly sure how long the PEG awards have been running- one organizer says the ceremony is about twenty years old, another guesses it's been around for maybe 13 years. But those details don't seem to concern Gibbons. On this night, his job is all about honoring the people who call making television their hobby.

Safe Kids and Friends, a children's program produced by Tony Lepore better known as "The Dancing Cop," was one of the favorites of the night. His award for Best Talk or Variety Program was his third of four prizes of the night.

Longtime cable access contributor Charles Berluti won the award for best live performance program. He's received around 20 prizes over his nearly quarter of a century working in public access. He gave the audience some advice in his acceptance speech.

"You've got to put you're your thoughts into putting a program together, he said. "But most of all you've got to put your mind in it, your heart in it, and your love in it and you will come out with a successful program. "

Perhaps the most famous public access television show in Rhode Island- Judge Frank Caprio's "Caught in Providence," a video taping of Caprio's municipal court- wasn't even a nominee.

Shows have to submit an entry to be considered for the awards ceremony. The clips are then judged by out of state television professionals.

At the end of the night, after all 19 awards have been handed out, members of the audience gather around the winners, snapping pictures and shaking hands. Libby Arron got a special recognition award for her show about senior's issues, but she says these ceremonies aren't the only time she's honored for her work.

"I go out shopping and people will stop me and say I saw you on the program and that was so good," she says. "I get telephone calls thanking me for providing information for them so they could handle a situation better."

Arron says her programs have helped seniors avoid scam mortgages and navigate the health care system. It's a deeply satisfying way to spend her retirement.

But a look around the room suggests public access in Rhode Island might be in danger. Most of the award winners are middle aged or older. In the age of YouTube and inexpensive video cameras, it might be easier for a younger generation to skip the cable airwaves all together.

Producer Libby Arron says maybe young people just don't know about cable access. She thinks if they knew how alive and vital and fulfilling this work is, they'd consider giving up some of time they'd usually spend on the internet or text messaging.

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