By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
The 12 no-charge studios have given rise to a vibrant public-access community, peopled at various times by the likes of sexologist and porn-site operator Dr. Susan Block; respected whistleblower Leslie Dutton; substitute teacher and government-policy expert John Walsh, who slams politicians with such vigor and disdain he appears to be on the verge of a heart attack; and grandmotherly Francine Dancer, who go-go dances. It is the same system that in New York spawned the infamous Robin Byrd Show, which celebrated gay and straight sexuality with nude guests and erotic dancing, and in Austin, Texas has inspired 450 independent citizens to produce a staggering array of uncensored on-air content.
But due to a state law written for AT&T by former California Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez and signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in the fall of 2006, cable-television companies are being allowed to escape a 31-year-old requirement to give back to the public from which they draw their riches. Lawmakers in a few weeks can finally shut up the little guys.
Powerful entities are movingquickly to take over editorial control of content as of January 1. Los Angeles, a leader in political and cultural movements, has emerged as the largest city pushing a trend that is unlikely to earn it admiration: dismantling the public platform used by everyday citizens to showcase their wacky talents or, much more to the point, to rip into politicians for sleazy deal-making, bad governing and inept budgeting.
Zuma Dogg, who sometimes performs as a karaoke DJ and posts his political and entertainment content on YouTube, says, “There’s a certain stamp of legitimacy when you’re on TV. YouTube is not a replacement but just a supplement. Let’s see the mayor of Los Angeles run only on YouTube! And if YouTube never came around, they’d still be pulling the plug” on public-access TV.
It goes far beyond that. The normally slow and dithering City Council on December 3 unanimously voted to consolidate their control over public access and squeeze the citizen-producers onto Channel 36, an already jammed station run by the nonprofit L.A. Cable Television Access Corp., which airs noncontroversial content created by groups like University of Southern California or the L.A. World Affairs Council. The city’s rowdy independent producers currently have access to hundreds of hours of free airtime, but must now beg the powers-that-be for a handful of hours on 36.
These developments have gone all but unreported by the media. A December 4 Los Angeles Times article misconstrued what is actually unfolding, accepting City Hall’s false spin — the notion that Villaraigosa and the council, 16 politicians, will let their most intense citizen-critics sound off as before. Even Freepress, a Web site dedicated to coverage of public-access wars, got the story wrong, reporting that the “City Council retreated from their plan to seize public cable channels and studios.”
In fact, as the Weekly exclusively reports here, public access in 2009 is shaping up as a never-ending infomercial for powerful Los Angeles politicians, education institutions and their cliques. City governments and cable companies across the United States are watching as the power elite of Los Angeles City Hall move forward to end a generation of rich public comment.
“If L.A. can silence the public-access channels,” says Ron Cooper, a longtime public-access advocate based in Sacramento, “and do it in a quiet way, then other cities will try to do the same thing.”
In 2003, a “needs assessment” written by the city’s own Information Technology Agency under Mayor James Hahn strongly touted public-access television as a way of “fostering participation in the democratic process.” Public access can’t be merely described as a hobby for the attention-starved, the document argues, but should be seen as a vital contributor to a free society. In a country with 22.6 million bloggers and 3.25 billion videos viewed on YouTube, most of them seen or read only by close friends, cable public access still flows directly into millions of living rooms — 600,000 in L.A. alone.
“Free speech is going to be the victim of the closing of these studios,” says Leslie Dutton, executive producer and host of the Full Disclosure Network, an Emmy-winning public-access show that airs on numerous cable stations like Channel 25 in Van Nuys on Wednesdays at 8 p.m. Dutton’s embarrassing, often doggedly investigated, reports about the failings of local government make her a thorn in the side of City Hall, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and the Los Angeles Unified School District. The loss of such unfettered voices is “happening in the heart of the media capital of the world,” she says. “It’s really a disgrace.”