Public access TV shows can be too hot for TV
Published: Sunday, January 18, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 18, 2004 at 1:09 a.m.
White Chocolate definitely has it out for Hillsborough County Commissioner Ronda Storms.
He hosts a public access television show in Tampa and shows his behind for her on television. It bears a Sharpie message: "Ronda Hates Free Speech." He has a woman strip naked for Storms and then show her backside. A message is scrawled on it: "Banned in the USA." Then she swivels her hips around, and the camera zooms in for a frontal shot.
White Chocolate has free rein to rant about Storms on public access television in Hillsborough County. His show is raunchy and is the type of programming that has Storms raging against public access TV - a crusade she brought to the Alachua County and Gainesville city commissions.
But as the commissioners ponder a galaxy of issues in deciding whether to create a station here, experts say they shouldn't spend too much time worrying that programming will be as lascivious and distasteful as White Chocolate.
Instead, a key question is whether the public's money will be well spent to bring to television small town parades, gardening shows, talking heads discussing diseases, school kids doing neat things and similarly banal programming, along with a few of the offensive shows.
"Truthfully, most of public access is fairly pedestrian. It's a couple of people with a plant between them and they are talking about something," said Bunnie Riedel, executive director of the Alliance for Community Media. "We have a million hours of programming every year nationwide - all new, original programming. Out of the million hours, I would say maybe 10 hours a year are controversial. And most of that is not sexual, it's political - somebody said something that somebody else didn't like."
Gainesville city and county commissioners met jointly in early January to review three proposals from individuals to operate a public access channel.
They agreed to have Cox Cable set aside a channel for some sort of community station. However, commissioners did not specify if it would be for a public access channel or select one of the three proposals.
Commissioners say they have a lot to consider before making final decisions: Does the public want such a channel? Should it be public access, which is open to all comers wanting to produce and air a program, or a more restrictive outlet called community access television? How much will it end up costing the public, especially in rate hikes by Cox? How can adult-oriented or controversial programs be screened and shown only at times they are least likely to be seen by youngsters? Who will decide what is controversial?
At least one, Alachua County Commissioner Lee Pinkoson, wants help.
"I think we need to put out some sort of survey. It will let us see what kind of demand there is and in it, we should say what kind of cost there will be," Pinkoson said. "If it comes back where there is overwhelming response that we don't want to pay for it, I think that says the demand is not there. The two biggest issues are cost and programming.
"Do I have a concern about possibly showing somebody killing themselves on TV? Yeah. I think that how programming is controlled, or the lack thereof, is important. We heard from the attorney that if something is submitted, in a public access forum, there is no censorship."
The issue of programming is a thorny one. Courts have held that public access channel operators cannot censor content except if it is deemed obscene, which in itself is difficult to define.
So nudity and lewdness must be allowed. And speech that many would consider hateful - race-baiting programs run by the Ku Klux Klan or anti-Semitic programs by the White Aryan Nation - must also be allowed. Such programming can be banished to the early morning hours when, presumably, children aren't watching.
The players in public access television seem to use park analogies a lot when it comes to programming.
Raquel Garcia, a University of Florida graduate student who is one of primary advocates of public access, compared it to an "electronic green space."
Instead of gathering in a park, community members can gather through the channel to share ideas, learn, relax and exercise their minds rather than their bodies.
"It allows people to tap into the community and what is happening in it. There is sort of that piqued interest in what is happening in your neighborhood or about people in the community. I think that is of broad interest. I think there is a real value there," Garcia said. "It's a way to engage in a media forum without having a profit-oriented agenda. I think that is exciting."
Storms also uses a park analogy in her campaign against public nudity, including that on public access television.
She has been in combat with a Tampa public access channel over its airing of a program with footage of a man committing suicide by shooting himself in the mouth. The camera lingers on a close-up showing blood pulsing from his mouth and nose.
A videotape of that was left by Storms with Gainesville and Alachua County commissioners. It also includes segments of shows hosted by Charles Perkins, aka White Chocolate, that feature close-up nudity.
Storms said a community does not allow people to strip nude in parks and believes it should not allow nudity on public access television.
"There is nothing you can do about it because it is not considered obscene," Storms said. "It is not just bare-breasted women you have to worry about. You will get things a lot more graphic than that. We have attempted to cut off funds. We have attempted regulation. You need to know what you are getting into with it."
Riedel has her own park analogy for public access television.
The alliance represents more than 1,000 public, educational and government access stations nationwide, Riedel said, and nearly all of them are responsible programmers, she said.
The few who aren't, she said, should not taint the majority.
"Say you have a public park. You know the majority of people who use the public park are going to be good with it. They are not going to tear it up," she said. "But you also know there is some guy out there who is going to urinate in it. So do you close the park or do you say that every so often, someone is going to do something rotten in the public park but for the greater good of the community, we think having the park is important?"
Hans Klein is an assistant professor of public policy at the Georgia Tech who has done considerable study of public access television.
Broad, deep support
Klein said public access television has broad support nationwide, as evidence of the fact that it survived attempts in the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 to curtail it.
The continued inclusion of public access drew strong support in a Republican Congress because a range of conservative groups favor it, Klein said. Churches in particular were strongly for it, Klein said. But he added that support stretched across the conservative-liberal continuum.
Klein said much of the support seems to stem from the fact that public access is not the usual commercial fare on cable and that the local nature of the shows appeals to people.
"It showed itself to have broad support, and it showed itself - surprisingly - to have pretty deep support. People who are using it are really quite passionate about it," Klein said. "Public access is fundamentally different than other channels on your cable network. So if you have 500 channels, why do you need 501? It is non-profit versus for-profit. And then it is local versus national. And it is even amateurish in a way that is good."
Assessing the cost
The cost of a channel has not been determined. It would be carried on Cox Cable, which has about 60,000 subscribers in Alachua County.
Alachua County and Gainesville are negotiating a new franchise agreement with Cox. They voted to have Cox set aside a channel, possibly for public access, in the new agreement.
Cox spokesman Rick Mulligan said that costs for a public access channel will be passed on to customers if the commissioners decide to create a channel.
If a channel is created, it would be operated by a board rather than the government or Cox.
Mulligan said Cox would have to bump a channel from its basic line-up - channels 2 through 22 - to carry a public access. That could mean killing a channel that generates revenue for Cox.
That lost revenue - which could range from $350,000 to $500,000 a year - would figure into the cost increases Cox would hand customers. A small franchise cost also would be included for Cox providing the channel space.
Advocates might have a tough selling job ahead.
Alachua County Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut, for instance, said she is not convinced the cost will be worth it for a public access channel.
"I don't think this is the most pressing need facing our community at this time," Chestnut said. "Based on the information we received from (Storms), I have very, very serious concerns about the accountability issue, no control once the door is open. I think a survey is an excellent idea. Why should we impose a fee on people for something they don't want?"
Cindy Swirko can be reached at 374-5024 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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