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CAN TV: A Positive Outlet for Filmmakers?

November 22, 2010 | By | Add a Comment

Margaret Ann Stewart

Lesley Johnson is the Program Director for Chicago’s CAN TV, a public access channel that offers the opportunity for filmmakers to showcase their work and learn about film production – this includes established filmmakers, as well as individuals or groups that have never produced a film. Johnson states, “Artists have embraced the Internet as a self-distribution outlet, but television is still the medium that is in everyone’s home.” Indeed, with over a million viewers and three cable outlets, (Comcast, RCN and WideOpenWest) Johnson says, “The only real question is, ‘Why haven’t you used CAN TV yet?’”

With that question in mind, I wanted to find out if this seemingly almost-too-good-to-be-true opportunity had any drawbacks for filmmakers.

I asked Johnson to tell me about the classes that were offered at CAN TV, looking for a “catch” in this filmmaking program. Johnson said production classes at CAN TV introduce filmmakers to the equipment needed to make a film, edit it and prepare it for presentation. However, Johnson indicated that if an individual is an experienced filmmaker, he or she can test out of the class and be certified to use CAN TV equipment for filmmaking. The class teaches filmmakers, as well as allows them to use CAN TV equipment. For filmmakers that do not have their own equipment, this is a marvelous opportunity because once the filmmaker is certified by CAN TV to use the equipment, that person can borrow it to shoot at the location of his or her choice. Okay, no catch there…

But what about the process of getting a film seen on CAN TV? Surely, I thought, this must be a difficult endeavor. Johnson was quick to inform me that there are requirements that filmmakers must adhere to. “Ah ha! Here it comes,” I was thinking. Then Johnson said that there are three primary requirements, the filmmaker must be 18 years of age, a resident of Chicago and sign a release indicating that the filmmaker is responsible for his or her own content. (Oh.)

Johnson did go on to explain that, “Programs need to be submitted on DVCam (the large cassette) with :30 seconds of black leader and :30 seconds of black after the program. Time code needs to be contiguous from the head of the reel. Programming must be non-commercial.” And she added, “The 10th of the month is the submission deadline to be eligible to air in the following month. Go to for more details.”

So I asked about restrictions, i.e., genre, length, and/or film that the station won’t show. Johnson explained that “everything gets shown” and that the station does not reject films because CAN TV is a forum for “free speech and non-profit groups” to have a voice in Chicago. Therefore, the station shows all submissions, including independently produced television shows, short films, documentaries, student films, full-length features, animation and experimental works. Moreover, the films submitted can focus on any element of the creative arts, including visual arts and dance. In all, Johnson stated, there are over 1,000 new films shown every month and it is only a matter of waiting for a programming opening for a film to be seen.

“Fine!” I thought, “But what about success stories, I bet they are limited…?” Wrong again. Johnson stipulated that “Earnest Hayes aired his documentary about homelessness in Chicago titled, A Killer Named Streets.” After the broadcast Hayes made contacts with several local organizations, including schools and the Department of Child Protective Services, (CPS), who used his film in their programs. Johnson continued, “One documentarian had his film picked up by PBS; another parlayed his experience here into producing for a local network. Others have utilized CAN TV to hone their craft like independent Latina filmmaker Dalia Tapia.” And there has also been success for filmmakers such as Derek Grace, who began learning about filmmaking at CAN TV and is “now is a professional producer who most recently had his documentary, On The Frontlines: Taking Back Our Streets shown at the 2010 Black Harvest Film Festival.”

The fact is that CAN TV offers an opportunity for filmmakers that many cities do not – a chance to not only learn about how to make films, but a medium that will ensure that they are seen by a vast audience. And, try though I might, I could not find a single drawback to the program. For both the professional and aspiring filmmaker this is definitely an opportunity that should not be overlooked.

And if you’re interested in exploring what CAN TV has to offer, Johnson suggests checking out “The School of the Art Institute of Chicago [which] has a mini-series beginning in November titled, SAIC Experimental Television featuring work by students. It will air every Wednesday through February 2nd, 2011 at 11:00 p.m. on CAN TV21.”


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