Is public access TV dead? Big cable may finally push out quirky cable. by Patt Morrison Los Angeles Times 01/08/09
Your remote control isn't screwed up. As of now, there really is nothing on some cable channels.
No more id-video, "look at me" public access shows about offbeat religions (with just one believer, the host) or crocheting or playing with your dog. No more community programs low on production values but high on neighborhood content.
For decades, some cities' cable TV franchises have been required to operate TV studios -- a dozen of them in L.A. -- so that just about any resident with the chutzpah and the know-how could get a show on public access TV. Among the stargazers and quirky musicians were politically scrappy stalwarts, such as "Full Disclosure Network," which won an Emmy for host/creator Leslie Dutton, or the show by the West Hollywood gadfly who read city officials' public record expense receipts aloud.
As of Jan. 1, the studios where these shows were created could be shut down, leaving those exhibitionists and their fans in the dark. Why? Go back to 2006, to AB 2987, a state bill that, like all bills, promised to make life more wonderful and even cheaper. What it actually did was take the "local" out of local cable TV.
Phone companies were panting to get in on the cable market -- a.k.a. the video-delivery market -- with their own phone-cable TV-Internet services designed to compete with media companies such as Time Warner. But they didn't want to bother to go city by city to win franchises, as the law stipulated. They wanted cable to be regulated on the state level.
As this bill wound through the Legislature, AT&T alone spent more than $22 million lobbying in California. More than $100,000 of communications company contributions went to the bill's sponsor, then-Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez, and one of his committees.
Cities got steamrolled. Henceforth, it'll be the state Public Utilities Commission, not your hometown, that will regulate and set the conditions for the new video-delivery contracts.
As a sop, cable franchises have to add 1% to the 5% of gross revenues they already pay in L.A. for the privilege of selling their services here. In exchange for that new dough -- $5 million in L.A. -- they don't have to maintain those public access studios. A few public access channels will still be around, but not the means for most of the public to make programs to broadcast on them.
So why can't the city, which runs at least one public studio now, use some of those fees to operate more? Does anyone believe L.A. will splash out money on public access when it has a nearly half-billion-dollar deficit? You do? Would you like to buy a condo in Miami?
What about just adding citizen TV to Channel 35?
I believe you can't have too much government coverage, not when TV news stations can barely find City Hall on a map. But to some critics, Channel 35 is not much more than a vanity channel. How likely is it that 35 would set aside air time for oddball shows, much less politically critical ones?
"If the city of L.A. is going to be the only owner of public access," says Judy Dugan, research director of the group Consumer Watchdog, "it'll have rules. None of this drug talk, none of this sex talk, none of this revolution talk."
As for the argument that the Internet makes public access irrelevant -- they're opposite ends of the telescope. The Internet may be infinite, but you hunt for what you want. TV is finite but much more serendipitous. And until now, it's been cheaper -- i.e. free -- to walk into a public access studio and get on regular television than to buy the gear required to get your cat on YouTube.
Tracy Westen heads L.A.'s Center for Governmental Studies. He also chairs a board overseeing how city departments spend about $200,000 a year on their public service TV programming.
"I love public access," he says, "but the young kids are not on public-access channels. On the other hand, there is no communal or video gathering place where people can see what people are thinking about L.A. without public access. It may be imperfect, but it's better than nothing. Rather than junk it, we should try to improve it."
On Monday, public access fans plan to flood a city committee hearing on the medium. There, promises Leslie Dutton, they will do battle "for our public assets, the cable channels and studios that were given to us 25 years ago, to keep the democratic process alive."