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Friday, July 15, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The Naked Truth About Public-Access Cable TV -- Channel's Free- Speech Protection Allows Producers Independence

For some, free speech is like muscle. If you don't use it, you lose it.

One of the more sinewy examples of that credo, around here at least, is a public-access cable-television show called "Political Playhouse."

Part talk show, part leftist diatribe, "Political Playhouse" explores in unusually frank and irreverent ways such issues as the abuse of power, censorship, health care, AIDS and the legalization of marijuana.

But what usually stops channel-surfers dead in their tracks when they encounter the weekly show is its broadcast of full nudity and the F word, to name two of the more famous things regarded as offensive in 20th-century America.

That makes it one of the more colorful programs on Public Access Channel 29, the cable-only station run by Tele-Communications Inc. and available to about 383,000 subscribers to the TCI, Viacom and Summit systems in King County.

Last month, at 8 o'clock on a Saturday night, "Political Playhouse" ran a retrospective 4 1/2-hour special in which nude program participants acted out a siege of the public-access studio just off Aurora Avenue North in Seattle to dramatize the danger of censorship.

In introducing the show, Philip Craft, the program's 28-year-old producer, stood naked, superimposed on an image of the Constitution, and suggested that viewers, too, could exercise freedom if they didn't like what they saw - with the TV's remote-control unit.

Surely, many viewers did switch away. Many also picked up the phone to call the cable companies and the Federal Communications Commission.

After years of government regulation of broadcasting, a largely commercial endeavor that caters to the whims of the vast center of the cultural spectrum, public-access TV might seem out of control.

But its occasionally risque content is perfectly legal. Aside from requesting that the cable company block the channel in their homes, offended viewers have little recourse in successfully challenging TV shows such as "Political Playhouse."

Public-access broadcasting has been embraced by the courts as a channel of free speech under the First Amendment of the Constitution, not subject to the usual regulations or economic forces that define prudent content.

If you are accustomed to sanitized TV, that can be troubling.

`Like making a newsletter'

The Internet of computers is getting all the headlines these days as the great enabler of free information. But public-access TV, which has evolved over two decades into a somewhat anarchic soapbox, combines language with the power of pictures and reaches more homes.

And as camcorders have become the Brownie cameras of the '90s, the ability to produce television is also in many of those homes.

"Making a video program today is like making a newsletter," said Scott Scowcroft, the director of the Channel 29 Northwest Access and Production Center run by TCI Cable of Washington.

"People now are just beginning to get it as far as public access as a free-speech medium," Scowcroft said. "They're just now realizing the power citizens have in a channel that is on the same platform as mass media."

Most of the programming on Channel 29 is fairly mundane, even boring, compared to "Political Playhouse."

Public-access managers here and elsewhere say that's the overwhelming nature of the medium. They say most shows are inoffensive, constructive, even inspired.

"I think it's important to look at controversial programming for what it is: a very narrow slice of what's on the community channels," said Allen Bushon, executive director of Capital Community Television in Salem, Ore. "To focus on that (which offends) is to devalue all the groups and organizations that use those channels positively."

Indeed, cooking, amateur comedy, sports, and music out of the mainstream, and non-English programming, can all be seen on Channel 29 and other public-access channels.

Such channels also are magnets for those with axes to grind and oxen to gore. Many of the programs can be regarded as politically or religiously fringe, which, of course, is the whole point of public access.

Be you left-leaning, or conservative, or of the center, when you sit to watch a whole day of Channel 29, it's only a matter of time before you see something that makes you cringe or snort.

"Unlike other television," said Scowcroft, "what the audience wants isn't important. It's what the program providers want."

For once, TV is not beholden to ratings.

Producer: `Nothing obscene'

"I don't objectify men or women," says Craft, the Seattle-bred producer of "Political Playhouse," who also plays in rock bands. "There's nothing obscene about a naked person. Obscenity is defined by action."

Indeed, there is no action on the show that would meet his definition of obscenity. If the show's participants were clothed, not much would seem amiss. They are inert in their nakedness.

Well, OK: "Political Playhouse" has shown an anatomically explicit video demonstrating proper condom use. But it was clinical.

As for the F word, it is mostly employed as the sort of punctuation you might encounter in many conversations these days in board rooms or pool rooms around Seattle.

But nudity and profanity aren't what channel surfers are accustomed to encountering in their living rooms, and it presents a challenge to parents who believe in free speech but fear their kids might encounter Channel 29 unsupervised.

The forces that make possible this intrusion, as many regard it, are a morass of laws, regulations, changing mores and politics.

Confusing the issue for the average television viewer is the fact the government has always regulated broadcasting content, although the standards set by Congress and the FCC are a moving target.

Further, over-the-air broadcasters have been subject to stricter content regulation than cable systems, which the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled are more akin to private publishers than their broadcast brethren that use the publicly owned, finite electromagnetic spectrum.

While cable programming in general is less scrutinized than broadcast TV and radio, public-access channels have been further shielded from meddling.

Public access has been around longer, but its widespread availability was created by an act of Congress in 1984 to "assure that cable communications provide . . . the widest possible diversity of information sources and services to the public." That act prohibited cable companies from exerting editorial control over public-access, educational and government channels, together known as PEG.

But in 1992, Congress tried to limit that carte blanche through the Cable Television Consumer Protection and Competition Act, permitting a cable operator to prohibit "indecent" programming, as defined by FCC rules, on access channels.

That provision was challenged by a coalition of free-speech advocates, and last year the U.S. Circuit Court in Washington, D.C., called it essentially an "outright ban" on certain content and declared it unconstitutional.

Wrote the court: "Congress and the FCC sought to create a regulatory scheme in order to restrict children's exposure to indecent material on cable access channels. We do not denigrate its attempt to protect children. However, part of its execution in this case runs afoul of our Constitution."

The court left the door open for less severe measures, such as time-of-day restrictions on adult material - a solution in favor these days with regard to over-the-air broadcasting.

Providers take responsibility

That's not to say anything goes on public access. Program providers, whose names are broadcast, take full responsibility for content, and if that content includes anything that is not so-called constitutionally protected speech, they - and not the cable system - are accountable.

For example, libelous and unredeeming obscene material (defined by a 1973 federal court decision) are not protected. State and local obscenity laws can apply. But matching any definition of obscenity with a real-life example has, over the years, proved to be problematic, and some call it an ideologically slippery slope.

"You've got to put it in the larger context - that we are kind of struggling with what, if anything, should be done" about expression that is offensive to some, whether it's television or rap CDs or shock radio, said Jeremy Lipschultz, a professor of communications at the University of Nebraska at Omaha who specializes in broadcast regulation and law.

"People feel that maybe there are some boundaries to free expression. But the minute you start to draw those boundaries for people, it becomes dangerous for free expression and free-speech rights."

For those who run the bigger public-access channels in the Northwest, the issue boils down simply to taking the First Amendment at face value, to let freedom ring.

Programs are not screened in advance, and in Seattle, Scowcroft does not "time-shift" into the late evening shows that might be unsuitable for young people, although program providers are encouraged to do so voluntarily.

Unlike independently run, nonprofit public-access channels in other places such as Portland, Seattle's Channel 29 is operated by TCI. Under new franchise agreements being negotiated with King County and Seattle, Channel 29 could evolve into an independent community entity. But for now Scowcroft finds himself straddling corporate and free-speech interests.

"Part of my job with both hats on is to keep public access out of harm's way, and part of the way we do that is we don't take sides," Scowcroft said of the channel's methodical first-come, first-served programming policies.

Said Debbie Luppold, general manager of independent Portland Cable Access: "You never have to protect the voice of the majority. It is the minority voice that someone is always trying to silence. Frequently the people who are calling to complain are more frightening to me than the people who are producing objectionable programming."

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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