'Electronic Town Square' : Anyone Can Be a Star on L.B. Public Access Channel

Times Staff Writer

Katrina Resewehr pondered awhile before asking the question.

"What are your feelings on teen-age suicide?" she asked finally, staring straight into the lens of the video camera.

"I'm not really aware that it's a problem," Dylan DeGuzman replied into the microphone, not skipping a beat.

Resewehr stiffened, then relaxed. She opened her mouth as if to ask another question, but nothing emerged. "I got nervous," she explained later. "I felt like I had to say something important, but as soon as I realized that people were watching me and the camera was on, it wouldn't come out."

Welcome to the world of public access cable television--where anyone can be a star and ordinary people with ideas and the time to produce them can have their own personal moments on the airwaves.

This particular idea took a switch of interviewers and three tries to transfer to tape. But they finally got it down. Thus DeGuzman, an interior designer indulging in a lunchtime stroll near the outdoor amphitheater in downtown Long Beach, will probably be seen on Channel 12 as one of several "man on the street" interviewees airing his views on teen-age suicide.

And Resewehr, 16, a high school dropout working on her first television production with classmates at a Long Beach learning center for teen-agers, will see completion of a project aimed at improving her self-esteem, confidence and pride, as well as informing the public on a matter of some importance.

Local programmers see this as an example of public access at its best. At its worst, said Mat Kaplan, head of the television production unit at Cal State Long Beach, public access is a "reasonably inexpensive way for irresponsible people . . . to get on TV."

Somewhere between lie the dozens of public access shows produced and aired in Long Beach.

The concept is simple. With major airways dominated by huge conglomerates and professional broadcasters, why not set aside a channel for local amateurs with a message? To that end, city after city has required cable television companies to provide public access channels as conditions of their franchises.

"It's the electronic town square," said June Mulcahy, vice chairwoman of the Long Beach Communications Advisory Commission set up by the city to help administer public access television. "It's the only soapbox left that you can easily have access to."

Added Ed Borgers, another commission member: "Here's a chance for the person in front of the camera to say whatever he or she wants to say. Much of it is worth listening to."

In Long Beach, public access has existed on a small scale for about 10 years. But it wasn't until Long Beach Dimension Cable was established in 1982 as a joint venture by the Knight-Ridder and Times Mirror corporations that the real interest began. As part of a 15-year franchise agreement signed that year, the company provides a studio, equipment, training, broadcast time and, in some cases, funds for any local producer who meets certain requirements.

Those requirements, Borgers said, dictate that the shows not be obscene, libelous, defamatory or commercial and not advocate violence or fraud.

Although the company maintains a number of other channels for local programming produced by Dimension itself or by institutions such as Cal State Long Beach, the library, Long Beach City College, city government and the school district, public access programs are shown exclusively on Channel 12 from 6 to 10 p.m. weeknights and 4 to 9 p.m. on Sundays. The channel, one of 105 operated by the company, is available to Dimension's estimated 38,000 subscribers in the Long Beach area.

Disagreement on Programs

Not all of them, however, always agree on just what should be shown on the people's airwaves.

A decision to permit a local group to sponsor the broadcast of segments of "The Silent Scream," a graphic documentary opposing abortion, led to an outcry by a local group of women who say they plan to ask for equal time. That and a more recent request for the showing of a white supremacist tape produced by San Diego County Ku Klux Klansman Tom Metzger led to a new policy by the commission regarding "bicycled" tapes--those produced elsewhere by groups not directly connected to the Long Beach community. The commission decided that such tapes could be shown once.

"That satisfied our First Amendment guarantees," said Sherry Blohm, telecommunications officer for the city. To date, she said, the commission has never turned down a request for air time.

Though most of the approximately 30 programs shown each week are low-budget affairs, a few have managed to become rather slick and professional-looking with the help of some of the $130,000 made available annually by Dimension to fund public access programming.

New Criteria for Grants

A controversy early in the game over how the money should be apportioned led to a revamping of the criteria by which local production grants are awarded. Today, said commission Chairman Art Hall, potential grantees are judged according to a strict point system based on creativity and programming content, production technique, local relevance, relevance to minority and under-represented groups in the community, video experience and programming with a "clear cultural objective."

In addition, a loosely knit group of producers known informally as the Long Beach Public Access Producers Assn. has concocted a plan whereby individual grants--which now amount to about $9,000--would be reduced to pay a pool of experienced technicians for use by producers who do not receive grants.

"Right now, if you don't get a grant, you almost can't produce a show," said Sid Soloman, membership director of Long Beach Area Citizens Involved and co-producer of that group's weekly public access talk show, "Citizens News on the Air."

The plan has won tentative support from advisory commission members who say they are currently working out the details of its implementation.

Some results of the funding have been interesting.

'A Lot Going for It'

Kaplan, who before going to work for Cal State Long Beach was public access coordinator for Dimension Cable, produces a weekly show called "City Alive" that has twice received grants.

"Our purpose is to get across the feeling that Long Beach has a lot going for it," Kaplan said of the program, which uses a game show format pitting various groups in the city against each other in tests of their knowledge of local issues and lore.

Competitors on the show have included teachers versus principals, firefighters versus police officers, the cable commission versus Dimension Cable, sororities versus fraternities and the chamber of commerce versus the City Council.

"We show facets of our community that are not known to anyone," Kaplan said of the program, which also features three-minute documentary segments highlighting interesting aspects of Long Beach.

Other local producers have parlayed grants into moving documentaries on how a Long Beach family coped with the death of their 11-year-old son from bone cancer, the life of a local retarded man who, at age 44, still lives with his parents, and a look at the city's emerging Asian refugee communities.

Variety of Offerings

But the programs receiving funds constitute only a small part of what goes out over the airwaves.

Larry Hathorn, a Long Beach real estate developer, co-produces a weekly show with his brother Dwane called "Hathorn's Look at Life," which, he said, uses a combination of interviews, comedy and documentary techniques to look at current events and such special interests as fashion, sports and rock 'n' roll.

"I always wanted to do something with television," said Hathorn, 36, adding that his show emphasizes the bright side of life. "It's a good way to express yourself."

And Fred Jackson, 34, runs a nonprofit company called Spacey Reel that produces a number of public access shows, one of which highlights performing artists in the community.

"Public access," he said, referring to the liveliness and originality of its format, "can keep cable alive."

Ties to Community Sought

Tim Cronin, director of media services for Dimension Cable, agrees that public access is a good thing for his company. "Any cable business has to be in very tight with the community," he said. "It's important that we become part of the community and not be seen as untouchables off in the sky."

Some local producers, however, say the company could improve its efforts in that area. "You can only do so much with inadequate facilities" and poorly maintained equipment, said Kaplan, who cited such problems as one of many personal and professional reasons for his 1983 resignation as the cable company's public access coordinator. "Partly, I was just fed up."

Cronin blames the equipment problem on abuse by producers, who are required to take only a three-evening course on the basics of television production before being turned loose in the studio.

"Since everything is free, they take it for granted," he said. "Sometimes they'll even open up the cameras and start tweaking them. They think they know what they're doing, but they don't."

Both sides hope that the producers association's new funding plan, which in addition to providing experienced technicians would divert funds for equipment purchases, will help solve the problem. In the meantime, most producers said, they are fairly satisfied with the way public access is working out in Long Beach.

Younger Producers

"We're getting a lot of younger producers coming in," said Charles Thrower, Dimension Cable's public access coordinator.

In an age dominated by rock video stations, such as MTV, and other excursions into previously uncharted media territory, he said, producers are experimenting. Upcoming examples in Long Beach include a takeoff on "The David Letterman Show" called "Variety Night Live" and a show called "On the Waterfront," which uses interview and documentary techniques interspersed with portions of a one-act play.

And, of course, the effort by the teen-agers from the Hutch Learning Center, whose documentary on teen-age suicide is expected to be shown later this month.

"I've seen friendships develop through this that I never thought I'd see," said Melony Malloy, a vocational counselor at the center. Although the original inspiration for the project--which combines journalism and drama--was hers, she said, the teen-agers did all of the writing, producing, interviewing and acting.

Inspiring Experience

For Searle Dickens, the self-described "star of the show," the experience has provided aspirations to a future career. "I could never convince my mother that I was serious" about being an actor, said Dickens, 17. "Now I've taken care of that."

Gertha Allen, 16, said she came to the recent shooting session expecting to operate a camera, and ended up conducting on-camera interviews. "I'd do it again anytime," she said. "I wouldn't mind having a job like that someday."

She paused long enough to let the reality of what she was doing sink in. "I hope everyone likes it," she said. "I hope it goes up for an Emmy."

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