Shutting Down Public Access TV
By Patrick Range McDonald, L.A. WEEKLY
AT&T and L.A. City Hall Quietly Lead a National Push to Silence the Little Guy
The day before Thanksgiving, Zuma Dogg, an outspoken community activist who has a comedian's sense of the absurd, stands in the far back of the thinly attended City Council meeting at Los Angeles City Hall, waiting his turn to speak during the public-comment period. Wearing a black ski cap pulled down to his eyes, with black wraparound sunglasses and a black, long-sleeved T-shirt, he looks like a bank robber. But as host of The Zuma Dogg Show, he's not only one of the most recognizable figures at City Hall, cordially greeted by passersby, including security guards and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, he also has the ear of high-level insiders, who feed him information in the hope that he'll expose, and possibly stop, one questionable government project or another.
"People say no one watches public access," Zuma Dogg uncharacteristically whispers, "but if you're on there consistently, then people absolutely watch it. You now have a guy who's famous in L.A. and without spending a lot of money. Public access changed my life."
Zuma Dogg, who takes his stage name from Zuma Beach and the rapper Snoop Dogg, hears City Council President Eric Garcetti politely call out his name for the hundredth time or so in the past few years. He hustles off to the podium at the front of the cathedral-like chamber, where bright lights shine down from the ceiling and automated television cameras roll for L.A. CityView, the public-access channel that broadcasts every City Council meeting.
"I'm hearing rumors of a hiring freeze over fire and police!" Zuma Doggs yells into the microphone. "Will the council member who has that idea please raise his hand because I'd like to say it's the stupidest, dumb idea! It's outrageous! How can you put a hiring freeze on fire and police? It's the first line of defense of public safety and the city, and here's why I'm really upset! You did nothing but put up high-density [apartment and condo] projects! High density! With millions of people! So you're prepared for all of these people! You must keep up with the fire and police hiring to go with the population boom!"
After his allotted two minutes are over, Zuma Dogg takes a breath and returns to the back of the council chamber, where strangers, who enjoyed the hard time he was giving to city leaders over the crowded new housing erected in L.A., give him the thumbs-up, shake his hand, and, on two separate occasions, slide him 20-dollar bills. Since he spends most of his time producing public-access shows and attending City Council meetings and hearings, Zuma Dogg doesn't hold a traditional job. Instead, fans and friends help him get by. In fact, in his first years on the scene, because he sometimes slept in his van, he was quietly derided by insiders, including a gaggle of journalists who attend council meetings, the subtext being, who cares what some homeless guy thinks?
His persistence, and now, even critics must admit, his growing expertise on city policy and city government, have changed all that. "I always feel the love," Zuma Dogg says. "I walk down the street anywhere in this city and people are always coming up to me. I think they're a little more generous today because of Thanksgiving."
Zuma Dogg largely built his cult status, and the much-needed donations that came with it, through appearances as a rapping, rhyming watchdog of the Downtown powers on such public-access stations as Channel 98 on the Westside. Just last week, he turned that notoriety into the ultimate public-access fantasy: The Los Angeles City Clerk formally approved his signed petitions, officially placing his name on the March 3, 2009, ballot in his exceptionally improbable run for mayor.
Despite his standing as the Eminem of public access in L.A., he may have already involuntarily taped his final cable show.
If everything unfolds as planned, on January 1, Time Warner, which owns more than 90 percent of the cable-television market in Los Angeles, will walk away from operating 12 public-access studios in L.A, which help everyday people to create hundreds of hours of content on 11 freewheeling, neighborhood-based public channels.
The dozen studios will go dark, their freely provided TV cameras and other pricey equipment — now available for anyone in L.A. to use without charge — will immediately be off-limits, and most of the little guys who dominate public access will be silenced.
Villaraigosa's bureaucrats have produced a 19-page position paper that obliterates all talk of community-wide impact and is far more interested in detailing how City Hall can benefit from the demise of public access. Sources tell L.A.Weekly that plans were squelched, internally, for producing a 60-page City Hall report addressing the potential negative impact on dozens of citizen-produced shows like Etopia News, the Stanley Dyrector Show, Soul & Sound of Watts, Politics Matter, Knowledge Is Power, the Johnny Jay Show, Community Wrap-up, East L.A. After Dark, Catch the Vision, Neighborhood Point of View and All My Relations Television.
"We will cease to use the public-access studios as pursuant to the law," Darryl Ryan, a spokesman for Time Warner Cable, tells L.A. Weekly.
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.
"It was clear when the law was written that it spelled the death knell of public access," says Judy Dugan, research director of Consumer Watchdog, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group in Santa Monica.
Powerful entities are moving quickly 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."
In a town where politicians hate anything that gets in the way of their backroom deals with corporate America, a hard-nosed community activist like Dutton would never get her own TV show if it was up to political hotshots. But Dutton and other hard-charging activists never needed approval of Los Angeles City Council and the Mayor's Office to show up on TV. They simply appeared on free public access.
On her show, Full Disclosure Network, Dutton undertook a long investigation of the disastrous construction of Belmont High School on a toxic site, helping to expose the waste and mismanagement of the so-called Taj Mahal High, a multibillion-dollar fiasco undertaken by the Los Angeles Unified School District. When L.A. Unified officials refused to let her on the grounds to film the site, she rented a small plane and taped it from the air.
"From the beginning," Dutton says, "we've said there's only one way to deal with this stuff, and that's to bring it to the people."
Dutton's reputation as a truth seeker has earned her the respect of powerful judges, lawyers, law-enforcement officials and community activists, all of whom regularly appear on her show and give her scoops.
John Walsh, the wild-eyed, fast-talking critic of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, used his show, Neighborhood Point of View, to spotlight expensive, seemingly endless screw-ups by Metro in building the city's subway system. MTA insiders watched Walsh on several cable outlets, including Hollywood's Channel 24, on Friday nights, and eventually fed him more information, which many believe killed the subway expansion a decade ago. One headline dubbed him "The Freak Who Stopped the Subway." Walsh now has set his sights on damaging one of Time Warner's most valuable properties. "I want to start a boycott of Time magazine," he says.
Zuma Dogg fought the oppressive, tightly controlled L.A. City Council meetings presided over by Council President Garcetti, who had banned video cameras. After security guards tried to stop Zuma Dogg from taping the council deliberations, he railed against the big shots for months, slamming Garcetti as "Garshady" on his show and on the whistleblower blog Mayor Sam (mayorsam.blogspot.com). "It was crazy," Zuma Dogg says. "Whatever happened to free speech in this country?" He prevailed against Garcetti's rules, and now brings his JVC camera to every council meeting, as can any member of the public thanks to him.
For many people, Dutton, Walsh and Zuma Dogg are underdogs, which makes the story behind the demise of public-access TV in the media capital of Los Angeles feel bizarre: The person who can be largely credited for its downfall is one Fabian Nuñez, recently departed speaker of the Assembly and self-described fighter for the disenfranchised.
For 19 years, Judy Dugan worked at the Los Angeles Times, where she rose to an influential job as the deputy editorial page editor. Dugan had worked with reporters who covered rough-and-tumble politics and thought she had seen it all. Then she caught Nuñez's maneuvering in Sacramento to wipe out public access. "Even I was shocked by what I found," Dugan says.
When Dugan went to work for Consumer Watchdog as a research director in 2005, one of her first solo assignments was to follow the progress of the obscure Assembly Bill 2987.
The bill, Dugan says, was a "cookie-cutter law that was shopped around by AT&T," from statehouse to statehouse nationwide, seeking a nibble from an amenable state legislator — anyone would do. AT&T had been providing phone and Internet service for years, but cable companies like Time Warner were coming onto their turf by offering Internet and phone service, as well as television programming.
To stay competitive, AT&T jumped into the cable-TV business but faced a major obstacle — cable companies had longstanding "franchise" agreements worked out on a city-by-city basis with mayors like Tom Bradley. A 1970s mandate by the Federal Communications Commission required that cable systems "provide channels for government, for educational purposes and, most importantly, for public access."
Several free public-access channels were created in Los Angeles, and 12 free public studios were built in Eagle Rock, Hollywood, East L.A. and South Los Angeles, among other locales. By 1987, according to City Hall's 2003 Information Technology Agency report, Los Angeles was a "model" for the nation, offering such "progressive provisions" as the "universal build-out of the systems to all areas of the city," and "equipment and facilities for public and educational access use."
AT&T wanted into that lucrative market. They sought a federal law to upend the old deals, but Congress and the Bush Administration didn't bite. AT&T approached at least 17 states, including Indiana, New York and Texas, Dugan says, with a bill to take cable franchise negotiations away from city and county governments, scuttle existing public-access deals, and hand the future decisions to a state agency."AT&T lobbied hard in a number of states," says Dugan, "and some of them fell for it."
New York politicians rebuffed AT&T, but officials in Texas said yes. Politicians in California were also more approachable, particularly — and curiously — Assembly Speaker Nuñez, of Los Angeles, a man raised in poverty who has often spoken of the need for those with power to give voice to those without. But that wasn't the walk he walked after AT&T and its employees gave him $79,500, according to Consumer Watchdog, during 2005 and 2006 alone.
In November 2007, the Los Angeles Times rode Nuñez hard for using his own charity to raise "almost $300,000 from companies and organizations with business in the Capitol to events that helped him politically." The newspaper cited AT&T and Verizon, which was also looking to get into the cable-TV game, as two major contributors to Nuñez's charity during 2005 and 2006 — the same years Nuñez was writing the law to end public access and benefit AT&T.
The League of California Cities, the lobbying arm representing scores of urban areas including Los Angeles, was dead against his bill. But the powerful group held no sway.
"You can stamp the word 'ignored' across the head of everybody who opposed that bill," says William Imperial, manager of the Video Services Regulatory Division at the Information Technology Agency for the city of Los Angeles.
Assemblyman "Lightbulb" Lloyd Levine of the San Fernando Valley, chairman of the state Assembly's Utilities and Commerce Committee, kissed off the desires of California's cities and co-sponsored AB 2987 with Nuñez. Yet even as Levine was helping out AT&T, the L.A. Times published an article stating that Levine "solicited $30,000 from AT&T, Verizon and the Northridge Hospital and Medical Center to pay for 'Assemblyman Lloyd Levine's Fit & Fun Challenge,' organized by Levine's staff."
A disgusted Dugan says that during this dubious period, Nuñez "carried AB 2987 and rammed it through the Legislature," and "AT&T did favors that they knew would produce results." Beyond pouring money into Nuñez's charity, Collective Space, Inc., AT&T sponsored a golf tournament called the "Speaker's Cup," which annually raises $1 million to $2 million for the California Democratic Party. The state Democratic Party later transferred $4 million to Nuñez's political committee — a huge infusion of campaign cash that increased Nuñez's growing political power.
The way Dugan sees it, "you could say more AT&T money ... ended up with Fabian Nuñez. But it had been thoroughly and completely laundered."
Nuñez, forced out of office by term limits and now a partner at Mercury Public Affairs, a political consulting firm, reacted angrily to her allegations. "I don't respond to immature or irresponsible comments like that," he tells L.A. Weekly. When told that Dugan of Consumer Watchdog, who he has tangled with before, made the charges, Nuñez fires off: "Where's the proof?!" then shouts out mockingly, "Who the fuck is Judy Dugan! I'd like to know!"
Nuñez says Consumer Watchdog has been "giving me and other Democrats a hard time for years" and complains that the Speaker's Cup allegation is "bullshit!" And Gordon Diamond, a spokesman for AT&T, insists, "We've sponsored that tournament for more than a decade, regardless of who's been speaker."
But Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog, says of his nonpartisan organization, "There's no group that's been more critical of Arnold Schwarzenegger. We've been hard as hell on both parties." That doesn't change the fact that Democrats Nuñez and Levine and their allies "gave away the boat to big industries" with AB 2987.
Nuñez defends his bill not as the demise of public access but as a way to "eliminate the monopoly status" of cable companies. "If you don't have any choice as a consumer," the former speaker says, "you probably won't get the best product for the best price."
But City Councilman Cardenas, the League of California Cities, and other opponents of the new law fear Nuñez has created just the problem he claims to be fixing. City Hall's loss of power over local franchise agreements — power that will now rest with the far-off state Public Utilities Commission — wipes out L.A.'s leverage to demand improved local customer service and programming.
The Nuñez-Levine bill "circumvented local control," Cardenas tells L.A. Weekly.
In public, cable companies with longstanding deals in Los Angeles and other cities complained that their customers would suffer under Nuñez's bill. But the true sticking point was that Nuñez-Levine's capitulations to AT&T forced cable companies to continue negotiating franchise agreements at the local level — only telephone companies like AT&T could bypass municipalities, Dugan says.
"I told my colleagues at the League of Cities," Cardenas says, "that as soon as the cable companies get the language they want, they'll leave us high and dry, which they did."
By June 2006, things unfolded that way. In the California State Senate, the bill was revised, letting the clamoring big cable companies have the same deal as AT&T. Now, all cable companies can bypass city halls, negotiating their franchise contracts with the Public Utilities Commission based in San Francisco.
AB 2987 not only ends the financial support and operation of public-access studios by cable companies, but the fine print contains a delayed poison pill that kicks in on January 1, two years after the law was enacted. It forever frees AT&T and others from maintaining, or constructing, any public-access studios after they pay a modest fee to Los Angeles and other cities — amounting to 1 percent of their gross revenue, on top of the 5 percent fee cable firms have long paid.
It happened fairly quietly, typical of controversial deals cut in Sacramento that go largely ignored by major media. Dutton didn't hear about AB 2987 until early in 2008, more than a year too late. "Another producer told me about it when I was at a studio," she says. Detailed alerts were being published on a smallish blog — written by Dugan.
Now, unless a dramatic eleventh-hour rescue materializes, public-access television in Los Angeles will undergo a huge upheaval beginning on the first day of 2009.
On November 18, 2008, two years after Villaraigosa, Garcetti, Cardenas and the rest of Los Angeles city leaders learned that the 12 citywide public-access studios were in jeopardy, the Information Technology and General Services Committee met downtown. Public-access producers Dutton, David Hernandez and others waited for "Item 2" to be called by the committee's chairman, Councilman Tony Cardenas.
When the item came up, Information Technology Agency Executive Officer Mark Wolf walked through a report written by Villaraigosa's political appointees who sit on the obscure Board of Information Technology. Wolf and Cardenas repeated two CYA-sounding themes: Nuñez's law was no good and tied the city's hands, and the city was reeling under extremely tight "budget constraints."
Wolf then offered a plan approved by Villaraigosa's appointees on the technology commission that indisputably hands over editorial control of the four still-standing cable channels to Villaraigosa, the City Council, the University of California system and the existing nonprofit, Channel 36, LACTAC.
Under "option one" as hammered out by the technology commission, the existing L.A. CityView Channel 35 will continue to be an official government channel; a new, second channel will offer safe "government-related" electronic bulletin-board info controlled by City Hall; the third channel will continue to offer acceptable programming overseen by LACTAC; and a fourth channel will be an "education" channel available only to pre-approved education groups and financed entirely by University of California TV.
There'll be no more sex chat on TV, no more go-go dancing on TV — and almost certainly no more whistleblowing on TV. And that's where the L.A.Times coverage went wrong on December 4, in a story headlined "Keeping Channels Open," which bought into Councilman Bill Rosendahl's silly spin that public access was being saved — by putting it under the aegis of the City Council and Villaraigosa.
Little surprise when Cardenas and City Councilman Bernard Parks, acting as the City Council's Information Technology committee, approved the plan to create the four government-sanitized "public" channels — and the full City Council promptly agreed. On December 3 the council voted after giving the issue far less scrutiny than the hours upon hours it has spent wrangling over an elephant enclosure at the L.A. Zoo.
Dutton, executive producer and host of Full Disclosure Network, wasn't happy. "It's a terrible plan," she says. "They are absolutely shutting the door on the public."
She premiered Full Disclosure Network in 1992 after sitting through a free two-hour orientation class, which explained the nuts-and-bolts of making a TV show, then was granted the free studio time and free professional staff to tape a 30-minute segment.
"After the show," says Dutton, "we started getting phone calls. People were excited. They had never seen anything like that."
She has spent the intervening years sometimes harshly examining such questions as whether illegal immigration will lead to "civil unrest"; slamming, with extensive reporting, Villaraigosa's failed takeover of Los Angeles Unified School District; and questioning whether mass media are "the enemy of America." Full Disclosure Network has received two local Emmy nominations and won an Emmy in 2002.
Dutton has sufficient finances to now operate out of her own studio in Marina del Rey. But without the initial training and equipment, she says Full Disclosure Network could have never started. As a result of AB 2987, Dutton says "the voice of the community will be silenced." Nonrich, nonconnected, everyday Angelenos "will never again have the opportunity to learn how to produce a program and have the operations to create a program," says Dutton.
For months this year, Dutton begged the L.A. City Council to do something. She wrote to Rosendahl but got no reply. She spoke out during public-comment periods, urging the purported supporters of public access, including Rosendahl and council members Dennis Zine and Tom LaBonge, to step in. But to no avail.
"This is an old trick politicians have done over the years," she says. "They wait until the holidays when people are distracted, and then they do whatever they want to do."
Cardenas denies that the City Council cynically waited for Thanksgiving, Hanukkah and Christmas to distract the fans of public access. Instead, he claims that the council and Villaraigosa were spending time trying to identify funds to keep the 12 studios open.
Councilman Rosendahl, a former Adelphia Cable executive who hosted Adelphia's well-financed, sophisticated current-affairs shows, Local Talk and Week in Review, says Dutton's depiction of an obfuscating, manipulative City Council is "unfair." He pins the blame for what is happening on the 2006 state law.
But Villaraigosa's and the council's own antics seem to belie such claims. Independent producers were stunned by the thin 19-page report that details City Hall's plan to wipe out dozens of small shows. The spare document, a stand-in for a much more detailed 60-page report that was quietly called off, makes no mention of the loss of numerous TV shows and contains no discussion of the negative impact on affected communities.
It was reminiscent of the tactics used in Villaraigosa's aborted effort to turn Pico and Olympic boulevards into one-way streets — by claiming the massive new traffic that would be drawn to those two boulevards didn't justify an Environmental Impact Report. In that case, outraged local neighborhoods sued to stop Villaraigosa, and a judge halted his ill-planned scheme until an EIR has been done.
But no L.A. lawsuits have been filed to protect public access, leaving City Hall free to ignore bothersome issues such as adverse community impacts. Says Dutton, "No community impact? They're wiping out the community."
Dutton and other public-access figures complain that the Garcetti-led City Council and Mayor Villaraigosa have "seized control" of public-access TV, and will probably only air shows that promote Los Angeles and its officials.
"I just don't think the city is going to allow people to speak against them," says Zuma Dogg. Despite his colorful persona, he is, in many ways, a quintessential Los Angeles resident. He had no idea how City Hall worked until its bureaucrats directly impinged upon his life, dramatically boosting the cost of his sidewalk seller's permit in Venice a few years ago. Now that he knows about the insider favoritism, slick deal-making and hastily called controversial votes that go on, he's become a loud critic both on his TV show and his blog at http://zumatimes.com/.
"If they are given the choice," he says, "they'll keep people like me off the airwaves."
And indeed, "option one" clearly describes the four public-access channels, post-January 1, as little more than promotional tools for City Council members, Villaraigosa, and other political insiders and institutions.
The "government-access" channel will be a continuation of L.A. CityView 35, a mesmerizingly dull station that broadcasts mostly City Council meetings. The "bulletin board" channel will be used to promote governmental and community activities and meetings, yet another way for the pols to promote themselves, with zilch controversy.
The "community/public-access" channel, controlled by nonprofit LACTAC, according to the city's own report, could "include NYC-TV style programming" focused on arts and culture and might also "set aside a portion of the programming schedule for self-produced public-access content." Beyond these vague suggestions, nobody seriously believes city government will let another hypercritical Leslie Dutton or Zuma Dogg bloom in L.A.
The technology commission's report suggests the LACTAC-controlled channel that might provide a few meager airtime hours to citizen-producers will "serve the needs of nonprofit agencies." But such an avenue can be easily manipulated by politicians in City Hall who use local nonprofits as not-so-subtle adjuncts to their climbs to power, then reward those nonprofits with special funding other groups cannot get. The mayor's technology commission goes even further in its four-channel plan. Unnamed nonprofits would "collaborate" with "neighborhood organizations" to "ensure that program development is consistent with the values and priorities of those communities."
For some, that smacks of further censorship. Two of the most controversial show producers, Dr. Susan Block and journalist-activist Dutton, tape their shows in their own studios. The only thing they need from City Hall is a public-access channel and a designated air-time slot. Block appears late-night regularly; for example, on L.A.'s Channel 79. Both fear they will lose their time slots on TV under the City Hall-devised, four-channel plan.
Block, the famous sexologist who started her television career in public access, later starred in her own HBO specials, and now offers erotica on her Web site, www.drsusanblock.com, says her sexually explicit show will be ripe for getting the ax. "I'm constantly worried about censorship," says Block. "I'm a sexologist. People have a need or desire to get this information. But some people would consider this not necessary or improper."
Dutton sees herself as "a little gnat" who has "irritated people in power." She doubts those same people will allow her to broadcast without some kind of editorial pressure to conform. "Who's going to decide which programs air?" Dutton asks. "Someone from the Mayor's Office?"
Councilman Cardenas is already conceding, "I don't see a council meeting aired at night, then followed by someone's content with people in the nude."
Should it really be up to political careerists like Cardenas or Garcetti or Villaraigosa to decide how the public-access channels are used — not to mention future council members and mayors who may take an even harder line on public criticism and moral values?
Fabian Nuñez pooh-poohs these reactions to his law, telling L.A. Weekly, "The public-access folks are upset now, but eventually everything will get worked out."
But David Hernandez, a community activist and public-access producer who infuriated the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors by suing them for removing the tiny Christian cross from the county seal, is considering suing the city.
Hernandez states what is obvious to many, if not to Fabian Nuñez: The City Council is not going to try very hard to save programs "critical of city government." Having heard Cardenas and other council members publicly "making the case that they were powerless" to protect public-access TV, Hernandez scoffs, "That's far from the case."
A few weeks ago, John Walsh, the excitable co-host of the public-access show Neighborhood Point of View, attended a City Council meeting in downtown and confronted Councilman Bill Rosendahl during a public-comment period.
Walsh wanted to know if Rosendahl, a self-professed "passionate" supporter of public access who climbed to political power almost entirely on the strength of his shows on Adelphia Cable, was doing anything to keep the 12 citywide cable TV studios open. For Walsh, it was important — a substitute teacher, he doesn't have his own studio or equipment, like Dutton or Block. He often produces his show at Time Warner's Hollywood public-access studio, where he recently appeared covered in fake blood in protest against the studio's imminent closure.
After his two minutes allowed for public comment was up, Walsh returned to his seat in the back of the John Ferraro Council Chamber. Within minutes, Rosendahl walked over and boasted, "I got Time Warner to give a one-year extension to public-access studios." He didn't say if studios would be preserved in Hollywood, South L.A., Eagle Rock, or any other specific location. But Walsh says he took Rosendahl at his word, thinking some kind of victory was at hand.
When L.A. Weekly contacted Rosendahl, the councilman played coy, referring our queries to Time Warner. After several phone calls to Time Warner, a spokesman finally came back with the news. "There is no deal with the city to extend the time of keeping the studios open," Darryl Ryan of Time Warner said.
Ryan then broke out a new spin on the underlying reason for AB 2987: "The law was enacted so municipalities could control and produce their own content," he claimed.
Judy Dugan can only laugh at the Time Warner line. "That's crazy," she says with a chuckle of disbelief. "That sounds like something a public-relations flack came up with out of thin air. That's ridiculous. The city may want to control content — but they certainly don't want to pay for it."
She's right. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the Garcetti-led council have been caught flat-footed by the economic crisis after ignoring warnings that the region was about to get hammered by the housing downturn. City Hall is broke.
But the city may not have to pay a dime. Any number of groups and people who pass the government's smell test might be willing to foot the bill for ready access to 600,000 living rooms in the media capital of America.
Contact the author, Patrick Range McDonald, at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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