It's a Wednesday afternoon in Hollywood, and Victoria Looseleaf is taping another segment of what she calls one of television's "best-kept secrets."
The guest is local chef Mark Peel, who has published a cookbook and brought some samples to the studio at Continental Cablevision. Looseleaf conducts the interview between mouthfuls of grilled asparagus. "Do you really feed your kids these wonderful meals?" she asks. "How would you describe your culinary philosophy?"
Peel is, of course, plugging his book and restaurant. And the host, a Westside harp teacher, is plugging "The Looseleaf Report," a half-hour interview show she hopes will someday find a more lucrative home away from cable's public-access channels.
"There's a stigma of being on public access, but I've risen above that," Looseleaf says after the taping. "I'd like to get paid for my efforts. I have to get an agent and a producer. But (public access) is a great training ground."
Twenty-five years after its debut, commercialism is creeping into public-access television. Many viewers have scorned the medium as an inert, amateurish forum for cranks and fringe groups that can't get exposure anywhere else. Yet that hasn't stopped Looseleaf and legions of other would-be David Lettermans from hoping for crossover success on mainstream television.
The irony is that public-access is supposed to be non-commercial, even though experts agree that such rules are made to be broken, or at least bent. Many series are intended as audition tapes for network or syndication deals. Some clever entrepreneurs have even used public access to run barely disguised infomercials for hairstyling, chiropractic and dentistry services.
For instance: The Los Angeles Chiropractic Society, a trade association, uses public-access facilities throughout the metropolitan area to produce a series--"Chiropractic Today and Beyond"--featuring member doctors and shows on such topics as "Whiplash" and "Manipulation Under Anesthesia." At the end of each show, viewers are advised to call an 800 number to get more information. Callers are referred to a practitioner in their area.
The program has succeeded in building more awareness of chiropractors, says Tony Winders of Murphy O'Brien Communications, a Beverly Hills-based public-relations firm that developed the 13-part series. Winders acknowledges that public-access rules forbid marketing and advertising, but says "the studios all know" about the series' goals and haven't complained.
For such users, the chief advantage to public access is that it costs nothing. In most cases, even the training and materials are free. The tab is picked up by cable company operators, who collect their revenue from--you guessed it--their customers.
Public-access channels are governed by franchise agreements between the cable companies and each city or town. Most communities require users and producers to get training, but otherwise they take a hands-off approach to production and distribution of videotapes. The lack of oversight has made it easier for users to edge closer to commercialization.
In most communities, as long as a program is not explicitly obscene or commercial, public-access administrators must air it unedited. Censoring a program, administrators say, would violate cable franchise agreements and the First Amendment, though some programmers admit they practice a form of censorship by putting undesirable shows on very late at night.
In New York, public access has broadcast nude talk shows and sex videos. And in Southern California, users have stopped just short of violating bans on advertising and marketing.
"On all the access channels, people have found ways to use it for their own personal agendas," says Paul Steinbaum, executive director of Beverly Hills Community Access TV. "That's fine as long as they try to follow the guidelines of public access. They can't be commercial and they can't try to sell a product overtly.
"But there are always people pushing the envelope. It's become a way of getting advertising without buying advertising . . . or a place for people to create audition tapes (for free). I don't think it's what public access is supposed to be."
To be sure, public access is not the ideal get-famous-quick scheme. Looseleaf has interviewed hipsters such as alternative-music performer Henry Rollins, writer Kathy Acker and director Percy Adlon. Yet, after seven years on the air, her show has never been picked up for syndication or commercial broadcast.
Westside author Art Fein, who for 10 years has hosted a roots-music show at Continental's Hollywood facility, also has been unable to make the leap to another broadcasting level. Fein has published a book about the Los Angeles rock music scene and interviewed scores of musicians, but so far he's taken the show no further than public access. Its ideal home, he says, would be on PBS.