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FRIDAY REPORT

Public Access, Spotty Success

Cable TV's uneven community channels offer everything from profound talk to porn starlets. The best are run by nonprofit groups, experts say, but the Southland scene is considered lackluster.

July 16, 1999|CAITLIN LIU and SEEMA MEHTA and NEDA RAOUF | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

It's not as slick as commercial television, nor does it have the mass appeal, that's for sure. But then again, public access television, sometimes also called community TV, was never meant to.

Unlike government or educational access channels, which air official meetings and programming sponsored by city halls or schools, public access television is decidedly grass-roots. Its boundaries run as wide as copyright laws and the 1st Amendment permit.

The programming is kaleidoscopically diverse--as colorful and prosaic, as high-minded and downright wacky--as society itself. Whether you are in Los Angeles or Orange County, Ventura, Riverside or elsewhere in Southern California, tuning in to public access might bring you the following:

* A somber concert of Iranian chamber music.

* A bearded nutritionist in a bolo tie, earnestly diagraming the biochemical causes of hemorrhoids.

* African American men discussing community issues.

* A psychic or a yoga instructor.

* Pets available for adoption.

* Museum buffs chatting about current exhibitions.

* Porn starlets exhibiting themselves in the buff.

Since improving technology 30 years ago first allowed cable channel space to be set aside for community use, public access has established its niche on hundreds of cable systems across Southern California and the nation.

Under the 1984 Cable Communications Policy Act, local government can require cable companies, through franchise agreements, to provide opportunities for community members to produce and air their own shows.

"Public access television was a device to make sure all profit-making cable companies were giving back something free to the community," said Joe Saltzman, professor of journalism and associate dean of USC's Annenberg School for Communication.

But serving the public does not necessarily mean reflecting majority opinion, other media experts note. While commercial cable aims for a broad audience, public access TV is founded on the ideal of allowing ordinary people express a diversity of views, no matter how unpopular or extreme.

"It's a critical part of democracy," said Red Burns of New York University, who was a part of the community TV movement when it began.

With government as the gatekeeper of public access through the funding and channel space it provides, community TV is thriving in some areas of the country, weak or nonexistent in others. Several experts interviewed believe that public access around Southern California, for the most part, is lackluster. Still, gems of individual effort can be found.

"People are trying to tackle more serious topics," said John Borack, manager of community relations and production for Time Warner Communications, one of the largest cable providers in Southern California. "Around the time of 'Wayne's World,' you had a lot of people just goofing off. That has kind of died down."

In particular, there seems to be an increase in community-oriented programming, some say.

Examples might be "Charlas de la Comunidad," a Spanish-language community talk show, and "Teen TV," both created by Debbie Boyer at the MediaOne-run public access center in Costa Mesa. "Teen TV" addressed youth issues, including homosexuality, date rape and violence. The show, which aired for two years, was run by teenagers, from filming and editing to choosing guests and hosting.

Those familiar with public access TV in Orange County say the area doesn't have the shows that have caused uproars elsewhere.

"There are some areas where people purposely do shows to be outrageous, like in New York or Los Angeles. There was a guy for years in Arizona that did a show jumping rope naked," said Robin Fort-Lincke, public access, education and government coordinator for Seal Beach Community Television. "We don't have that here."

Seal Beach airs a wide range of programming, including shows created by residents of Leisure World.

A popular program is "Out of the Dark With the Mystery Maven," which features mystery authors and mysterious happenings. Beth Caswell, the host, created the show four months ago and has interviewed novelist Kelly Lange, the former KNBC-TV anchorwoman, and former mob wife Georgia Durante.

Caswell got involved with public access radio in her teens and later owned a mystery book store. "Public access really provides the best opportunity for someone who doesn't have the Hollywood package--the agent, financing, etc.--but who is dedicated" and still wants to get involved in the medium, she said.

The people behind public access TV usually have day jobs that subsidize their broadcast hobby. With enough time, chutzpah and sometimes money, any community member with public access cable can produce a show.

In Los Angeles, Art Fein's long-running show is regarded as one of the most professional productions. For 15 years, his "Poker Club" has featured guests ranging from Beach Boy Brian Wilson to little-known local commentators who share a passion for music.

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