Public Access, Spotty Success

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

It's not as slick as commercial television, nor does it have the mass appeal, that's for sure. But then again, public access television, sometimes also called community TV, was never meant to.

Unlike government or educational access channels, which air official meetings and programming sponsored by city halls or schools, public access television is decidedly grass-roots. Its boundaries run as wide as copyright laws and the 1st Amendment permit.

The programming is kaleidoscopically diverse--as colorful and prosaic, as high-minded and downright wacky--as society itself. Whether you are in Los Angeles or Orange County, Ventura, Riverside or elsewhere in Southern California, tuning in to public access might bring you the following:

* A somber concert of Iranian chamber music.

* A bearded nutritionist in a bolo tie, earnestly diagraming the biochemical causes of hemorrhoids.

* African American men discussing community issues.

* A psychic or a yoga instructor.

* Pets available for adoption.

* Museum buffs chatting about current exhibitions.

* Porn starlets exhibiting themselves in the buff.

Since improving technology 30 years ago first allowed cable channel space to be set aside for community use, public access has established its niche on hundreds of cable systems across Southern California and the nation.

Under the 1984 Cable Communications Policy Act, local government can require cable companies, through franchise agreements, to provide opportunities for community members to produce and air their own shows.

"Public access television was a device to make sure all profit-making cable companies were giving back something free to the community," said Joe Saltzman, professor of journalism and associate dean of USC's Annenberg School for Communication.

But serving the public does not necessarily mean reflecting majority opinion, other media experts note. While commercial cable aims for a broad audience, public access TV is founded on the ideal of allowing ordinary people express a diversity of views, no matter how unpopular or extreme.

"It's a critical part of democracy," said Red Burns of New York University, who was a part of the community TV movement when it began.

With government as the gatekeeper of public access through the funding and channel space it provides, community TV is thriving in some areas of the country, weak or nonexistent in others. Several experts interviewed believe that public access around Southern California, for the most part, is lackluster. Still, gems of individual effort can be found.

"People are trying to tackle more serious topics," said John Borack, manager of community relations and production for Time Warner Communications, one of the largest cable providers in Southern California. "Around the time of 'Wayne's World,' you had a lot of people just goofing off. That has kind of died down."

In particular, there seems to be an increase in community-oriented programming, some say.

Examples might be "Charlas de la Comunidad," a Spanish-language community talk show, and "Teen TV," both created by Debbie Boyer at the MediaOne-run public access center in Costa Mesa. "Teen TV" addressed youth issues, including homosexuality, date rape and violence. The show, which aired for two years, was run by teenagers, from filming and editing to choosing guests and hosting.

Those familiar with public access TV in Orange County say the area doesn't have the shows that have caused uproars elsewhere.

"There are some areas where people purposely do shows to be outrageous, like in New York or Los Angeles. There was a guy for years in Arizona that did a show jumping rope naked," said Robin Fort-Lincke, public access, education and government coordinator for Seal Beach Community Television. "We don't have that here."

Seal Beach airs a wide range of programming, including shows created by residents of Leisure World.

A popular program is "Out of the Dark With the Mystery Maven," which features mystery authors and mysterious happenings. Beth Caswell, the host, created the show four months ago and has interviewed novelist Kelly Lange, the former KNBC-TV anchorwoman, and former mob wife Georgia Durante.

Caswell got involved with public access radio in her teens and later owned a mystery book store. "Public access really provides the best opportunity for someone who doesn't have the Hollywood package--the agent, financing, etc.--but who is dedicated" and still wants to get involved in the medium, she said.

The people behind public access TV usually have day jobs that subsidize their broadcast hobby. With enough time, chutzpah and sometimes money, any community member with public access cable can produce a show.

In Los Angeles, Art Fein's long-running show is regarded as one of the most professional productions. For 15 years, his "Poker Club" has featured guests ranging from Beach Boy Brian Wilson to little-known local commentators who share a passion for music.

One recent evening at the TCI public access studio in Van Nuys, Fein--whose profession is writing--hosted a show featuring Paul Body and Louie Lista, onetime mates in the 1970s and early '80s blues band Sheiks of Shake. Between Lista's performances on harmonica, the men discussed blues.

Like all public access programs, Fein's is noncommercial and produced or sponsored by a member of the local community. To shoot a show, producers can receive training, borrow equipment or book studio time at public access centers, in some places still for free.

Much of Southern California's public access programming lags behind that of other areas, experts say. Chicago, for example, has five public access channels, and Manhattan has four. In Los Angeles and other Southland cities, many cable systems offer only one public access channel. Among smaller communities in Orange and Ventura counties, public access must share channel space with other uses.

The Southland's cable areas are also fragmented, causing challenges for producers and viewers.

Though many access studios remain free to the public, some charge fees. For instance, MediaOne charges $35 in Los Angeles and $25 in Orange County. Cable operators say the fees help cover high production costs. But others say the burden could prohibit low-income people from participating.

"It's a community resource," said Bunnie Riedel, executive director of the Washington-based Alliance for Community Media. The public "should be able to go in and use the equipment, like books in the library, for free."

Much of the technology provided by access centers around the Southland is antiquated, producers say. A common feature is the three-quarter-inch tape. "That was the industry standard 20 years ago," one producer said. Public access, sighed another producer, "is the stepchild of cable television."

Amid the current controversy over the lack of major African American, Latino and Asian American roles in the networks' prime-time programming for the fall, public access shows break through "this cacophony of white media," Riedel said.

Public access also provides a venue for others often ignored by commercial TV. Across the nation, senior citizens, nonprofit organizations, gay and lesbian groups and minor political parties have all used public access as their electronic soapbox.

Some public access shows have sparked controversy because of their sexual or racist content. In the Los Angeles area, "Colin's Sleazy Friends," a talk show featuring porn stars who sometimes show off their professional skills on air, has a following in certain circles but has been denounced by others.

Such programs are a small part of a diverse array of programming, but unfortunately they are also the ones that make headlines and give public access a bad rap, public access advocates said.

The biggest problem with public access in some parts of the Southland, experts say, is the dearth of resources.

"One of the shortcomings of the 1984 law is the lack of a stable funding mechanism," said Andrew Jay Schwartzman, president of the Media Access Project, a public-interest telecommunications law firm. Because funding and channel space depend largely on how well local governments negotiate with cable companies, there has been a "huge variation" in public access resources nationally, he said.

A sampling of California communities demonstrates the variances. MediaOne, one of Southern California's largest cable operators, spends about $6.67 per subscriber annually on public access in Costa Mesa, a little more than $4 per subscriber in Los Angeles and about $2.50 per subscriber in Palm Desert. The company provides no public access in Tulare and Visalia because those cities do not require it, company officials said.

Though there are exceptions, the best public access systems nationwide are run by nonprofit groups, while the worst are usually managed by cable companies, said Sue Buske, a community television consultant.

Many of the Southland's public access production resources are controlled by cable companies--"a prescription for disaster," she said.

Experts seem divided over the state of public access nationwide.

"Our research shows that more and more city governments, especially where cities are responsible for funding channels, are getting rid of it," said Dusty Garza, manager of community affairs and local programming for Charter Cable, which serves Riverside. "It's a nonrevenue-generating factor."

But others, such as Riedel, say community television is thriving in many areas, especially when nonprofit groups are involved.

Public access might be regaining momentum in some Southland communities. Less than a year ago, Time Warner opened a new access studio in Orange County.

More nonprofit organizations are being formed. In the city of Ventura, a nonprofit group is scheduled to take over public access later this year. A similar arrangement, by which cable operators are to provide funding to a new nonprofit corporation, was approved in September in Oxnard.

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