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PATT MORRISON

The cancellation of Channel 36

Policy debates and high school sports could soon fade to black.

May 01, 2008|PATT MORRISON

It's the channel you probably channel-surf right past on your way from Discovery to CNN.

Its production values can look a little ... lean. "Desperate Housewives" no doubt spends more on its backstage buffet line than it costs to operate this little local channel for a whole year.

Tonight, other cable channels will air something called "Britney's Secret Childhood" and reruns of "Law & Order" and "Family Feud." Cable access Channel 36 will explore the future of Broadway downtown, and what Proposition 98 means. On Friday, as you're flipping through the lineup looking for a pro baseball game, Channel 36 will broadcast the local high school slugger-fest between Cleveland and Chatsworth. Fox lets you decide whether to vote for Syesha or Brooke on "American Idol"; Channel 36 shows the debate between Bernard Parks and Mark Ridley-Thomas, so you can decide who to vote for for L.A. County supervisor, a post that represents more people than do the senators from 14 U.S. states.

Whoops -- we interrupt this programming announcement for a de-programming announcement. Los Angeles is pulling the money plug. Unless the City Council overrules the mayor's budget choices, come July 1, Channel 36 as we know it will go dark.

Not that there's much budget to cut. The 16 hours of programming a day, seven days a week -- school sports, public policy talks, long-distance for-credit college classes and a lot of repeats if you missed anything the first time -- cost the city $555,000. (Channel 36 raises another $320,000 itself, mostly from hiring out its production services.)

That $555,000 comes from cable TV companies, not taxpayers. Back in 1984, the city boldly demanded funding for public access channels as a condition of handing out those rich, rich cable franchises. That show of nerve now generates $25 million a year.

About $3 million goes to Channel 36's more production-intense sister station, Channel 35. If some of the faces on 35 look familiar, it's because they're often the mayor's or council members', in public meetings and on chatty shows about the work they're doing. They're on so often that their political opponents have complained that Channel 35 is like one big, free campaign commercial.

The Monday morning that the mayor released his budget, Carla Carlini, the general manager of Channel 36, was nervous. The city nearly whacked Channel 36 four years ago, and the city's red ink is a lot more crimson now.

"I looked at it online," she told me, "and literally froze." Her budget was zero. "I printed it out, I looked at it again -- at that point I picked up the phone and called [the agency that supervises the channel] and said, 'Am I reading this correctly?' and they said, 'Yes.' "

Maybe that zero will turn out to be just a negotiating gambit as the budget gets hashed out. Or maybe some bright boy or girl in the mayor's office figures, "Why do we need two TV stations? Maybe the mayor will notice that I saved him half a million bucks and take me with him when he's governor."

So why do we need two public channels? It's the programming -- government doings on one, education and community events on the other. (Do you really think politicians would cede their airtime to an urban issues lecture or an introductory film class?)

Happenings that are big news in smaller cities -- local political debates, performances at public theaters, prep sports -- get outshouted here by fires and freeway chases and Hollywood. And yet those things are the stuff of community.

With Channel 36, high school jocks all over town can turn on their games and tell their families, "Look, I'm on TV" -- sometimes in neighborhoods where the only other local guys on TV are doing a perp walk, and the only local sports coverage features a brawl at the all-star game.

I'd argue that televising prep sports and the rest are more valuable to community relations than mounting video cameras on 30 police cars -- which is one thing Channel 36's $555,000 budget could pay for. I'm weary of the false way the choice is always presented: "Which would you rather have, a TV channel, parks or libraries -- or more cops?" Sure, we can always use more cops, but take that logic too far and L.A. becomes nothing more than an open-air cellblock with palm trees.

If anything can save Channel 36 in the last reel, it may be Councilman Bill Rosendahl's role on the budget committee. He hosted an influential cable show for years and helped push the city and the cable companies into airing public interest programs. The zeroing out, he told me, has left him upset, surprised and determined not to let it happen. "To give up a channel like that is like giving up gold."

There's none of that to spare, which is why we're in this muddle in the first place. Tune in to Channel 35 today for the budget deliberations. Then check out Channel 36 -- while you still can.

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patt.morrison@latimes.com

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