LOS ANGELES TIMES:|
Is public access TV dead?
Big cable may finally push out quirky cable.
By Patt Morrison
January 8, 2009
Your remote control isn't screwed up. As of now, there really is nothing on some
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
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
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 Nuņez,
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-
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."
At least I know I can still watch that on TV.