CamNet: Those Who Cam, Do (continued)

by Michael Goldberg

from WIRED, September 1994

Their video verité offers a refreshing and badly needed dose of everyday people dealing with the joys, sorrows, highs, and lows of real life, in stark contrast to the blood-and-guts video bites typically dished up by the blow-dried robots of network news.

Using mostly amatuer, unpaid VJ's scattered throughout the country who have Hi-8 camcorders and plenty of chutzpah, CamNet's founders and editors, Nancy Cain and Judith Binder, have been beaming their delightfully offbeat, often insightful, sometimes funny, always intelligent, frequently political, and genuinely entertaining documentary-style news shows out into a million or so American homes for the past two years.

Cain and Binder never go anywhere without their camcorders. Sometimes a tad spacey, sometimes highly focused, Nancy Cain has the look of a '60s anti-war protester, with her long, curly, slightly out-of-control hair and oversized jeans jacket. The look fits, though -- in the late '60s Cain was part of Videofreex, a radical video group that shot footage of Woodstock and the Chicago Seven.

Judith Binder is more uptown: styled reddish hair, black combat boots, jeans with appliqueed fish, and plastic snake earrings.

CamNet is their labor of love. Neither of the founders are paid, and often they have to supplement the advertising revenues that dribble in to keep their show on the air. To survive, Cain has taken on outside video-editing jobs, most recently working on infomercials. Binder, who is financially independent, does theatrical consulting and directing on the side.

Since going on the air in 1992, more than 40 hourlong CamNet shows have been broadcast.

When asked why she devotes so much of her time to CamNet, Binder gets very quiet, very serious. "It's my way of expressing myself," she says, adding that she believes the work is making a positive contribution to the community. "I feel I need to give service."

"We are the alternative network," says Cain proudly. "We give people the chance to communicate with each other using this vehicle, the camcorder. You don't have to be on the Internet; you can be on the CamNet."

While network news and CNN tend to report what could be considered the official version of the news, CamNet offers a down-to-earth, proletarian perspective. The VJs see themselves as video revolutionaries. Long before a home video of police beating Rodney King shook the nation, Cain and Binder understood both the power and the revolutionary nature of the camcorder. No longer limited to media professionals, the camcorder today is nearly as omnipresent as the VCR. "Everyone pretty much has access to one," says Binder. "Either they own one, or they know somebody that has one."

In an MTV-world of quick cuts and trendy camera angles, CamNet pieces unfold slowly. CamNet VJs couldn't care less about slick; what they're after is emotional resonance. People are allowed to talk for more than just a sentence or two. To view CamNet is to look through a window into the real, dirty, unvarnished, and - in a sense - unedited world.

It's not The News, cautions Cain, but the other news.

Right now, CamNet is at something of a crossroads. In the two years it's been on the air, Cain and Binder have assembled a crack crew of VJs and managed to get national acclaim for a show put together on a true shoestring budget (US$1,000 per on-the-air hour). But without a sales team to bring in serious advertising dollars, without savvy business brains to expand its audience, CamNet is a good idea in search of serious capitalization.

That hasn't stopped the two women from continuing to produce the show, but they have spent much of this year seriously pursuing Hollywood dollars that can fund their dream of the CamNet Channel -- alternative news and features 24-hours a day.

With access to the tools of the trade, everyone is a potential VJ. Take correspondent Barbara Brownell, a teacher, actress, and mother living in North Hollywood, California. Brownell stumbled across CamNet while channel surfing and dug it so much she bought her own camcorder and became a regular contributor to CamNet. While anyone is a potential VJ, it takes practice to deliver footage that will satisfy the exacting and peculiar standarts of Binder and Cain. "No talking heads," Binder says. "No anchorman-style narration. Just tell the story by showing it to us."

Many of the pieces they air are remarkably intimate. A prosthetic-breast manufacturer gives them a tour of the factory, then reveals that she herself wears prosthetic breasts. She even pulls a falsie out of her bra, as CamNet's camera rolls. "We don't have any three-man crews," says Cain. "One person with a little camcorder just isn't intimidating."

"They feel this is their chance to be heard," says Binder, trying to explain the willingness of people they video to expose their humanness. "We're not confrontational. We're not there to confront them, we're there to hear them. I think people are starved to be heard. And most of the time, people are not being heard."

Though the pieces are often heavily edited -- Cain and Binder can go through two hours or more of raw footage to pull together a five- or six-minute segment -- the goal is to create seamless television. "If it looks like it's happening at the moment you're seeing it, if it looks like you're experiencing it live and you're inside it instead of outside it, then it works," says Cain.

"Like you're overhearing it -- or, I should say, watching it -- as it happens, as opposed to being told about it later," adds Binder.

Cain and Binder met in the fall of 1985 at the Wallenboyd Theater in Los Angeles. Cain's husband, satirist (and publisher of The Realist since 1958) Paul Krassner, was performing his stand-up routine.

The two women discovered that each had been shooting video for years and that they shared the same fervor for the medium. Cain had first picked up a camera in 1969 while working as a producer at CBS-TV in New York; she says that once she started shooting video in the field, she began daydreaming about a community-based video news channel. For a time, as part of Videofreex, Cain did broadcast home-grown video using a jerry-built transmitter to her neighbors in upstate New York. Binder was a housewife until the feminist movement of the '70s inspired her to pursue her interests in art and theater. In addition to directing alternative theater in LA, she turned to photography, and in the '80s to video, to document female artists.

Cain and Binder became good friends and business partners, helping each other out on anyand all video jobs that came along. Then they got a lucky break. At the end of the '80s, two of Cain's longtime friends, Tom Weinberg and John Schwartz, started The '90s Channel in Boulder, Colorado. The '90s Channel began by broadcasting independently produced documentaries in eight cities on United Artists Cable (now owned by Tele- Communications Inc.). At the same time, Weinberg and a number of his associates, including Nancy Cain, developed The '90s, a weekly hourlong alternative news and features show that primarily used camcorder footage.

Cain and Binder were hired as producers. The '90s went on the air in 1989 and ran for four seasons. For two seasons it was funded by PBS, aired on PBS affiliates, and seen in more than 100 markets. While working on The '90s, Cain and Binder put together a loose network of VJs. But in 1992, PBS canceled its support for The '90s. "That's PBS," says Cain with a shrug. "They never do what we want them to do. I don't know why they discontinued it."

Meanwhile, Cain says, The '90s Channel was "desperate for good programming." So instead of seeking out other staff TV jobs, Cain and Binder created CamNet, which gained instant access to the million or so homes that get The '90s Channel as part of their basic cable package.

Operating out fo Cain's cottage, surrounded by editing equipment on loan from Weinberg (he eventually took the equipment back; CamNet currently trades ad space for editing time), Cain and Binder put the show together. Initially, they produced two two-hour shows each month. Each show was "looped" and broadcast continuously, 24 hours a day, for a week, on The '90s Channel. At the beginning of this year, they cut back to producing one hourlong show each month to free them up to capitalize and develop better distribution,

Nancy Cain is doing her best to hold back the tears. As Cain, Binder, and I sit in the living room of Cain's cottage, just a block away from the craziness of the Venice Beach boardwalk, she is screening an extended piece on a woman who spends her days singing for spare change in New York's Christopher Street subway station.

The piece is powerful. The singer, a young woman from Alabama who is missing a few teeth, is a real talent, an Emmylou Harris of the streets. As she strums her electric guitar and sings James Taylor's sad ballad "You Can Close Your Eyes," a drunk tries unsuccessfully to clap along in rhythm. For the most part, the singer is ignored by the New Yorkers hurrying onto the subway cars. At one point, when the camera leaves the singer to focus for a moment on the drunk, he snaps, "I told you don't put the fucking camera on me. You want to pay me, pay me!"

When she's done singing, the woman kneels before her open guitar case, counting the $3 or $4 contributed by passerbys. Does she make much, she is asked. "Pretty good." she replies dispassionately.

"Something about that really gets to me no matter how many times I see it." says Cain.

"Sad, so sad," says Binder. "Her eyes."

"And her situation," says Cain.

Spend a few days with Cain and Binder, and it becomes clear that CamNet is not simply a job but a way of life. Actually, CamNet isn't a job at all. At the moment, they're running but one paid ad, for Phone Relief, a device that attaches to the telephone headset and allows for a hands-free phone conversation. "CamNet is absolutely an act of love," says Cain. "We've got to do this."

They've been actively pursuing financing from a major media company. They've "taken meetings" with executives from CBS Late Night, Fox, Time Warner, and others. They say an exec at Time Warner promised, "We're going to throw some money at you," but then wouldn't return their calls.

"They like it, but then they get scared," says Cain. "As I always say, if you want to be innovative, you have to be innovative. That's the problem."

But lately things have been looking up. In May they negotiated a deal with two veteran TV executives who hope to turn CamNet into a real business. The plan is for Cain and Binder to spend a month in a top-of-the-line video suite (paid for by the execs) and put together a killer CamNet demo. Their new business partners intend to shop the show to medium- market network affiliate stations for broadcast during "fringe" hours.

The two women are hopeful that before long they'll have the resources to air a 30-minute version of CamNet daily. Still, if things fall through, they'll continue on their own, self-financing CamNet and airing it through their current outlets. "The more Hollywood execs say 'No,' the more determined we are," says Cain. "For every deal that doesn't happen, it just makes us more determined, goddamn it!"

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