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COLUMN ONE

TV on the Edge -- or Over It

Public access cable, once seen as a folksy forum, is home to the shocking, too. San Francisco's channel is one that tests obscenity's boundaries.

January 08, 2003|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — The camera rolls as hosts Keith "Koolayd" Carthen and Jerome "Hustleman" Porter mug menacingly from a makeshift bar framed by cheap velvet curtains. The two drink cognac from paper cups and talk trash as they introduce videos of naked women gyrating to rap and hip-hop.

After proclaiming 2003 "the year of the thong," Carthen adjusts his Oakland Raiders cap and announces that a viewer has complained that his public access TV show, "Reel Whirl II," is sexist.

He shoots the camera a gangster glare. On cue, a fifth of Courvoisier slides down the bar into his grasp. "I plead the Fifth!" he cackles.

Carthen turns to his partner: "Do you ever get tired of [naked women]?"

"Nah."

"Me, neither," he says as another video rolls.

Public access television, envisioned as a folksy electronic forum for community announcements, school lunch menus and loftier notions of citizen democracy, has emerged as television's most outlandish realm.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday January 09, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 9 inches; 348 words Type of Material: Correction
Public access TV -- An article in Wednesday's Section A referred to a public access television station in Bitterford, Maine, being temporarily shut down after a slander allegation. The correct spelling of the town is Biddeford.

Stations nationwide offer the unedited whimsy of eccentric novice producers who will probably never be ready for prime time. Among the offerings have been the man in Michigan who went on the air with a penis puppet, the Manhattan show with close-up footage of underwater childbirth and the Los Angeles program on which porn stars display their skills.

But few stations can match San Francisco's Channel 29 for on-camera surrealism. The city's lone public access station is home to "Tranny Talk," an Oprah-style gabfest for transgender people; the "Mr. Stinky Show," featuring shock comedy skits; "You'll Put Your Eye Out," with how-to primers on making moonshine, shooting potatoes from a gun and other stunts; and "Bikers For Christ," which features a bearded man in Hells Angel garb reciting biblical passages from a law library.

After 11 p.m. the lineup gets downright kinky. "Queen Bee TV" features a slinky woman in a bumblebee get-up who talks about her dolls, her mother's shoes and other fetishes. On an obscenity-laced dominatrix show with a name too perverse to print, two women once covered themselves in chocolate and shaved people's private parts while fielding phone calls from viewers.

On the "Bug Girl Show," a woman shouts into the camera as she paces city streets, holding forth on such issues as male violence. On "Brainiac," a man in a wedding dress and skeleton mask shows clips of Japanese cartoons.

Public access stations have been around since the 1960s, but not until 1984 did Congress establish a legal framework for such programming.

Under the Cable Communications Policy Act, local governments can require cable companies to set aside at least one station as a forum for members of the public to produce and air their own shows.

The idea was for cable providers to give something back in return for the billions of dollars they made wiring the nation's living rooms for Home Box Office, ESPN, the Home Shopping Network and other for-profit programming.

Congress envisioned a meeting place where ordinary citizens could exchange ideas without commercial constraints or interference by network censors and taste-makers. Anyone with an idea could walk into the local public access studio, receive training and take to the airwaves. Cable companies would foot the bill.

Public access has evolved into a kind of open-mike format, in which people can, and sometimes do, say anything. The results sometimes entertain, often baffle and increasingly agitate viewers.

Channel 29's crew of 200 amateur producers spans the spectrum from street-corner evangelists to political activists. There are underemployed comedians, rock star wannabes and self-styled performance artists.

Though some aspire to a political or artistic message, Carthen, creator of "Reel Whirl II," says he has no agenda beyond sharing his enthusiasm for naked female bodies. He hopes to take his show to a wider audience on HBO or the Playboy Channel someday.

"People dig my show, and it's not just the hip-hoppers," he says. "I wouldn't be surprised if all the preachers and church choirs in town were tuning in."

Station Watchdogs

A professor, an independent producer and a disability rights activist sit in Channel 29's Market Street studios. Members of the station's program committee, they stare grimly at a TV monitor, reviewing two programs that have inspired viewer complaints.

A seven-minute segment from "D World" -- the D is short for Dope -- shows a blindfolded woman performing lewd acts using a bottle of Miller Genuine Draft.

Peggy Coster, the disability advocate, winces at the footage: "I'm worried about this woman's safety."

"Maybe we should add a disclaimer," says another committee member. " 'Don't try this at home.' "

Coster and her colleagues are watchdogs guarding an ill-defined boundary. While trying to preserve public access TV's mandate as an unfettered electronic soapbox, they also try to gauge when shows such as "D World" or "Reel Whirl II" cross the line into obscenity.

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