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Channel Zero Offers Viewers an Alternative to Broadcast Television
by Gary Johnson

Go to:
The Channel Zero Web site

Do you ever suspect that television hasn't been developed to its fullest potential? Or, worse yet, do you suspect television has been appropriated by commercial interests that are not averse to using the medium for propaganda and misinformation? Well, if you have, then Channel Zero, a new video magazine, might be just what you're looking for.

Channel Zero offers viewers an alternative to mainstream information sources. By creating a product that is free of corporate sponsorship and advertising, the creators of Channel Zero intend to create an "alternative universe to that of broadcast television by producing high-impact and design-driven programs." In addition, Channel Zero intends to bring you "stories from our streets, more dramatic and impacting than anything you could create in a million dollar studio."

Needless to say, those are some pretty big goals. So does Channel Zero really make good on their intentions in their first video, Planet Street? Well, the results are mixed. At times, Planet Street adopts the same sort of goofy approach that Michael Moore honed in his TV Nation, which, of course, was a prime-time offering of broadcast television. And at other times, Planet Street looks too amateurish to be a truly viable alternative news medium. But at yet other times, Planet Street becomes a thought-provoking vehicle for issues and settings that broadcast television rarely touches.

Neil Postman talks about Las Vegas as a metaphor for America.

Channel Zero: Planet Street gets off to an intriguing start with an interview of Marshall McLuhan disciple Neil Postman. Postman eloquently describes the effects of television upon our expectations: "If you went back to the early twentieth century . . . we didn't have television to raise our expectations to really quite unrealistic heights and so were able to endure poverty." But now with television beaming images of wealth into virtually every home in the country (not to mention millions of homes around the world), poor, underprivileged people see the disparity between the haves and have nots and anger is the result.

This first episode sets the style for the video: the interviewer is largely absent. The camera focuses on the subject, Postman, while the post-production work adds a barrage of MTV-styled images. At times this episode could have used a little less razzle-dazzle. For example, when Postman mentions the Mafia, we get a shot of Brando from The Godfather, as if we don't have brains of our own and can't make simple connections. This is one of the greatest weaknesses of Channel Zero's approach: the hyperactive, MTV-styled production frequently stomps on the issues at hand and belabors the obvious.

At its worst, Planet Street gives the same razzle-dazzle approach to the musings of conspiracy mongers in what unfortunately appears to be a reoccurring feature, "Conspiracy Corner." As I heard "the shocking truth" about O.J. Simpson and Oklahoma City, I kept wishing Michael Moore were on hand to turn the episodes into camp and poke some not-so-gentle fun at the loony theories. But Channel Zero simply gives the conspiracy lovers free reign to blather on about their theories.

Channel Zero also falters when it turns the camera on Nazi's in Slovenia and male prostitutes in Paris. These episodes provide few insights and play out as not-fully-realized scraps of stories best left on the shelf.

However, Planet Street shines in at least two other episodes and provides great hope for the future of Channel Zero. The first of these episodes involves a "shoeshine technician" in Belize, named Robert Pitts. We hear this self-styled philosopher-of-the-streets talk about the ongoing struggle in Belize over its tourists. His comments are juxtaposed with an inside look at the Camel Trophy tour, which traveled through Belize. The huge armada of Land Rovers that made up the tour cost more than Belize's government spends in an entire year. And all in the name of promoting cigarettes. This insightful contrast is Channel Zero at its ironic best.

A young boy Hope talks about his experiences in South Africa

Another episode, "My Name is Hope," takes a different approach, painting a poignant picture of alienation in South Africa. The camera moves through the slums with freedom, showing us the drug abuse and the cramped quarters, contrasting the tin roofs of shanty town with the clean-and-neat middle class dwellings only a few yards away. In these scenes, Planet Street uses a slow, deliberate approach, largely (thankfully) dropping the MTV-inspired visuals, dissolves, and fades, and bringing us up close to the country and its people. Best of all, we get to meet a young South African boy named Hope, who doesn't know the meaning of racism and expresses an eternally hopeful attitude. He doesn't think less of the whites for their policy of apartheid and only hopes they never do the same thing again.

In addition, Planet Street features an astounding short film by Guy Roland called "Pacer." The film is composed almost exclusively of single frame shots of buildings, bridges, fences, and pillars. These images are edited together so that the camera appears to be rolling through the city at breakneck speed, discovering surprising rhythms in the structures. Rows of windows on an apartment building suddenly take on a unique and beautiful artistry of their own. A simple concrete pillar in a parking garage becomes beautiful as the camera moves around it and the lighting changes. "Pacer" is a remarkable film.

In its best episodes, Planet Street shows great hope for the future of Channel Zero; however, I can't help but wonder if the linear nature of video is really the best venue for this project. Channel Zero screams for a non-linear approach that would allow users to move through the news magazine at their own pace and choose stories to view on their own. Channel Zero already has a Web site ( which gives us a taste of their intentions, but only after band width issues are resolved on the Web can Channel Zero truly deliver their new magazine by way of the Web. A CD-ROM version of the news magazine makes more sense than video, particularly with the interactivity that a software version would provide. Whatever the case, keep your eyes on Channel Zero.

[The Channel Zero logo]

Channel Zero: Planet Street (volume 1/issue 1) is available at Tower Records. If you're having trouble finding Planet Street, you can contact Channel Zero directly via the World Wide Web at
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