LOS ANGELES TIMES:|
A new California law allows Time Warner to close 12 studios that provided
community programming in Los Angeles. Critics say a valuable 1st Amendment
platform is lost.
By Reed Johnson
January 5, 2009
For decades, public access programming on cable television has provided a
virtually free forum for community activists and aspiring entertainers, for preening
star wannabes as well as serious-minded political watchdogs.
But in Los Angeles and across California that forum began crumbling last week,
a development that advocates say will strip ordinary citizens of a valuable 1st
A provision of a law passed by the Legislature in 2006, which took effect
Thursday, allows cable television providers the option of dropping their long-
standing obligation of providing free studios, equipment and training to the
public. In return, providers must pay a substantial annual fee and continue to
provide a minimal number of public education and government channels.
In Los Angeles, 12 public access studios that provided programming for 11
community channels have been closed by Time Warner Cable Inc. That means
much of the city's diverse, neighborhood-specific public access shows may
If that happens, Los Angeles cable subscribers would be losing an outlet for their
particular communities' programming, said David Hernandez, president of the
Los Angeles Public Access Coalition.
"It's the regional broadcasting capability that's lost," he said.
Twenty other states, including Texas, Nevada, Florida, Illinois and Michigan,
have enacted legislation similar to California's Digital Infrastructure and Video
Competition Act, or DIVCA, according to the nonprofit Alliance for Community
Media. In several of those states, the loss of production studios was bitterly
fought by opposition groups to little avail.
But the waning of public access programming in California would carry special
significance for the nation, said Ron Cooper, a public access advocate and
regional treasurer of the Alliance for Community Media in Sacramento.
"The rest of the country is watching," Cooper said. "And not because it's a good
example -- quite the opposite."
In Los Angeles, public access covers an array of citizen-produced shows,
including "Soul & Sound of Watts," "East L.A. After Dark" and a late-night
program by sexologist Dr. Susan Block. Between 30% and 35% of all
programming is religion-oriented.
Although public access television often is mocked as a showcase for eccentric
narcissists and sensationalistic provocateurs -- what Cooper referred to as
"naked Nazis" -- he said only a small proportion of its content fits this bill.
"For the city of Los Angeles, the city of angels, the media capital of the world to
say there is no room for public" access, Cooper said, "I don't even know how to
Time Warner says it is only complying with the provisions of the new law, which
still requires a limited number of public, government and education channels
funded by a fee calculated by 1% of gross annual revenue. In Los Angeles, that
fee for Time Warner amounts to about $5 million, which is in addition to a $25-
million annual franchise fee.
"The spirit of DIVCA was to create a level playing field for all competitors," said
Patricia Fregoso-Cox, vice president of communications for Time Warner Cable
for the western region.
Fregoso-Cox said the company would continue to reserve four area cable
channels for so-called PEG (public, education and government) content and that
it had no plans to convert those to commercial programming. One city-run public
access studio, in Boyle Heights, will remain open, at least for now.
As for the 12 studio closings, she said: "We have an exit strategy. Some of the
buildings we own, some of the buildings we lease. Some of the buildings will be
repositioned for other programming."
In Los Angeles, the cavalcade of characters, gadflies and watchdogs that
populate the public access channels aren't going away without a fight.
Hernandez has written to City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo and California Atty. Gen.
Jerry Brown to ask for injunctive relief against the studio closings.
"It's a two-pronged immorality," said Leslie Dutton, executive producer and host
of the Full Disclosure Network, an Emmy-winning public access news broadcast.
"It's immoral for the city to do nothing to replace the assets that are being taken
from the public with the millions of dollars that are still coming to them, and No.
2, for preventing Time Warner from closing the channels down."