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Public access, public hate

Cable TV must provide a forum for the public. But it has unwittingly led to the airing of racist and anti-Semitic rants.

December 29, 2007|Greg Braxton | Times Staff Writer

"Robert De Niro" wasn't kidding. As impersonated by Josh Robert Thompson, he warned in the opening minutes of his live TV call-in talk show "Dining With De Niro" that he only wanted to talk about food -- "manly" foods like beef. He discouraged viewers who wanted to discuss "feminine" foods like cupcakes or muffins.

Many of his callers were not having it.

One caller blurted out an anti-Semitic obscenity. Another used the N-word while shouting out that "everyone who lives in Highland Park" loves black people.

"Come on," said Thompson, as he glared at the camera and fired off a blaze of colorful vulgarities. "Shoot your best shot."

Welcome to another slate of live programming that airs Saturday afternoons on the Time Warner cable system.

It's all part of the no-holds-barred, foul-mouthed and uncensored world of public access television, where performance artists, preachers, psychics and aspiring entertainers can produce their own show.

But the loose restrictions governing the shows have unwittingly resulted in diatribes against ethnic and religious groups.

"Wayne's World" it ain't.

Whereas Michael Richards and Don Imus recently got caught up in raging controversies over racist comments, similar sentiments -- voiced by anonymous callers -- are aired live and uncensored each weekend. Cable operators maintain they cannot censor or edit the insults.

"As it relates to the rules for public access, we're very limited in terms of what we can do," said Patti Rockenwagner, vice president of communications for Time Warner Cable, which services close to 600,000 customers in Los Angeles and close to 2 million customers throughout Southern California.

Said Rockenwagner: "We cannot editorially make a decision about the content of the shows. These channels are to allow the public to have rights to the airwaves. We try to put on the more colorful content in the evening, shows that are prerecorded. And we try to do what we can to minimize potential customer dissatisfaction."

Public access channels, mandated by municipal law to be carried by cable television systems contracted with local jurisdictions, attract mostly cult audiences drawn by the mixture of home-grown crude programming assembled by amateur producers, many hoping for a shot at being discovered by Hollywood.

More provocative shows are slated during the late evening hours. Almost anything goes when it comes to language -- the so-called seven dirty words made famous by comedian George Carlin are freely used. Advertising and nudity are among the few elements prohibited on the shows. (The Federal Communications Commission, which oversees broadcast television, has no jurisdiction over public access.)

Still, the live block on Time Warner is broadcast during a time when children may be watching television. The shows carry no parental advisory, and the calls are not screened. Many of the callers sound young and male, perhaps drawn by the lure of hearing their voices on live television.

Some of the hosts of religious-themed or psychic call-in shows during the live block are clearly bothered by many of the live calls.

"Come on, now what's that about?" asked John Kilduff, host of "Let's Paint TV," when a caller made an anti-Semitic comment. "Let's love everybody. Let's have a good time."

On one episode of the show, in which Kilduff painted on a canvas while walking on a treadmill, he became so upset by the hecklers that he stopped taking calls.

But hosts of lighter or more comedy-oriented shows say they are not bothered by the calls, maintaining that the sentiments represent the rawness and free speech that public access channels are designed to provide.

"It's what's out there," said Don Barris, host of "Simply Don the Ding Dong Public Access Show," a comedic talk show. "Public access is supposed to give everyone an opportunity to say what they think. I cringe every time I hear those kinds of comments -- it's not my cup of tea. But it's also not my responsibility to stop something that's happening live. It's a very fun experience, and the freedom is the reason."

Thompson, who has imitated De Niro and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on "The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson," said he welcomed the comments, which give a spark to his improvised routines.

"My De Niro is always mentioning that he loves and dates African American women, and it's interesting to see how these people who call in react to that," said Thompson. "It pushes the envelope a little bit. I love that live interaction."

He added that he didn't find the expression of racism bothersome or offensive: "All it does is expose these people for what they are."

Alan Pupagan, host of "The Del Talk Show," in which a group of teens and young adults sit around a table and insult one another as well as the audience, encourages hecklers.

"I'm really not opposed to all the racist stuff," said Pupagan, a 19-year-old student at Santa Monica College who said he would like to have a career in television. "For myself, I don't like dropping the N-bomb. But I'm not going to hang up on a guy that uses it."

He added that he would continue to welcome the racist hecklers.

"The whole thing is all jokey anyway," he said. "How many people are watching public access on a Saturday afternoon when they should be outside? It's just a bunch of stoner guys who want to see if they can talk dirty on TV. I don't feel responsible for that. Let them call."


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