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Taking the public access out of public access.

For several years, I have been a frequent guest on my favorite public-access television series to discuss censorship issues or secular humanism. My initial delight upon meeting the producer, cast, and crew of "Political Playhouse" has matured into a bond of great affection and solidarity.

These young activists are among the most responsible, sincere, articulate, and committed people I know. They go to great lengths to secure a myriad of guests to interview on their series, including numerous well-known local and national figures. They invest countless hours--and a great deal of their own money--to create educational, entertaining, informative, and thought-provoking material and to make "Political Playhouse" a truly unrestricted free, thought forum.

Producer/host Philip Craft and cast had been preparing for a live June 25 four-and-one-half-hour special for months. With their usual creativity and good humor, they dubbed this program the "Political Playhouse Marathon" and were enacting a mock siege of the Seattle TCI Cablevision studio. This was a longer version of their regular show--with one exception. In order to protest the notion that the human body is inherently obscene, all but four of the participants, including the technical crew and approximately 15 cast members, did the show nude.

I was one of the four (clothed) guests interviewed on the "Marathon." I was also present in the studio for most of the evening. Others interviewed were director Jonathan Blank (premiering his "Sex, Drugs, and Democracy" in Seattle), an educator from the STD unit of a large Seattle hospital, and David Ossman (writer and performer with the Fireside Theatre).

The extent of the public reaction took us by surprise. Beginning a few minutes into the broadcast, TCI Cable, vision was deluged with hundreds of calls. We learned later that, as a result of similar calls to the Seattle Police Department and City Hall, the tape was reviewed by the Seattle prosecutor's office. (To date, no action has been taken.) During the week following the broadcast, hundreds of messages were left on the "Political Playhouse" answering machine. Many were anonymous. Many were harassment calls. Two were death threats.

The marathon was picked up by several public-access stations in major cities, continuing to run in various locations for at least 48 hours after the initial broadcast. Local reaction resulted in op-eds, editorials, and columnist commentary (most written by people who had not seen the program). The Seattle Times featured a front-page story, complete with a charming photo of Craft, the now infamous "nude talkshow host," his camcorder strategically located on his lap. "I don't objectify men or women. There's nothing obscene about a naked person," he said.

This fierce controversy has taught us one thing about public-access television: the average American has no idea what it is, how it works, or why it's so very important.

Public-access television began more than 20 years ago as a way to give average citizens a venue for exercising their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and expression. Big cable operators now have the potential to monopolize the ideas and images which the American public is allowed to see. Mindful of the corrosive effect of such monopolies on the free expression of ideas, Congress enacted the Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984.

On the expanding information superhighway, public-access channels will soon be our society's only non-commercial free-speech forum for the communication of ideas not always shared by the majority. Like other forms of free speech, this venue hasn't always been popular. But it is the only American institution decreed by law to be totally free of censure by government or any other entity.

One important intent of public access is to provide a protected outlet for various "hate groups." Of course, neo-Nazis, Holocaust revisionists, white supremacists, and other racists are appalling. This is precisely why we must let them speak for themselves. Silenced and driven underground, they fester and become vastly more dangerous. If out of fear we fall to prepare young people to deal with the existence of hatred and bigotry in the world, how will they cope when they are confronted by them?

Many people seemed unaware that cable service is ordered and billed as an optional service, or that the cable company provides a free lockout device that blocks the public-access channel. Many are also unaware that, between programs, the channel frequently cautions viewers that some programs may be objectionable to some viewers and explains the procedure, open to everyone, for obtaining air time to rebut any of the ideas presented on the public-access channel.

After an indignant constituent sent him a video of the marathon, Washington Senator Slade Gorton (now running for reelection) loudly proclaimed his shock and moral outrage over the program. A self-appointed guardian of the purity of America's children, Gorton declared: "There is no room for this kind of trash on television. It's outrageous. My amendment will give cable operators the authority to get rid of it. No parent wants their child to be looking for Barney and find a group of naked people jabbering instead."

To remedy this abomination, he drafted an amendment to the Communications Act of 1994 (SB1822) which would give cable operators the authority to refuse to transmit any cable-access programming which contains "obscenity, indecency, or nudity." (Legally, obscene material is already barred from the cable system, as it is everywhere else.)

In announcing his proposal, an out, raged Gorton said, "Anyone can get air time to say or do whatever they like!" (And we said, "Yes! That's exactly the mandate of public access!") Gorton continued, "This stuff is being pumped in, to people's homes at all hours of the day!" (We can only assume he was trying to conjure up visions of thousands of viewers chained to chairs in their own living rooms, forced to watch the public-access channel 24 hours a day for weeks at a time.

After this announcement, Gorton ran a severely edited version of the tape around the clock in his office (we couldn't help but notice the irony here), inviting anyone who doubts that such filth must be eliminated to stop by his office and see it. "It is not pretty," he added. (Obviously, a matter of opinion. I thought they all looked adorable.)

To our astonishment, NPR reported on these events and short blurbs (with clips) were carried on several late-night national news broadcasts, including CNN. Democratic Senator Exon jumped on the bandwagon, and Gorton's amendment passed unanimously in the Communications Committee. (As of this writing, hearings are expected to begin the last week of September.

In the weeks after the broadcast, Craft and I were interviewed by most of the talk-radio stations in the Seattle vicinity. Both of us were stunned by the viciousness and abject fear we encountered. But not once during many hours of perhaps the most appalling abuse I've ever heard did Craft respond with anger or intolerance; never once did he refuse to talk to anyone, nor did he terminate an interview. With remarkable patience and grace, he made full use of the educational opportunity the situation afforded. His sincerity and conviction eventually disarmed many critics, and he emerged with his dignity intact. I've never been more proud of him.

Before taking a look at the bigger picture, the point must be made that TCI has been consistently supportive since the beginning of this ordeal. At no time has any TCI official even insinuated that "Political Playhouse" should be censored. On the contrary, TCI officials have consulted with WCAC and written newspaper op-eds explaining how to use the public-access channel and eloquently defending American free-speech rights.

The most significant legal support comes from a 1993 federal court decision in a challenge to pertinent portions of the rules regarding "indecent" programming (adopted by the Communications Commission to implement the Cable Act). The court declared these rules unconstitutional, holding that "cable communications provides the widest possible diversity of information sources and services to the public. Government may not constitutionally authorize a cable operator to ban 'indecent' material from public access channels." The case was remanded for reconsideration.

A pending California case concerns a situation in which, after the fourth episode of a leased cable-access series, "Erotica S.E," officials at Viacom declared it "obscene" and summarily cancelled the entire series. The producers filed suit against Viacom for violation of both the First Amendment and the Cable Act. In a preliminary hearing, a district court judge ordered Viacom to reinstate the program until final resolution.

Meanwhile, similar battles are being fought on other city and state levels. The entire concept of public access is being called into question. "It is not the job of private industry to protect democratic principles of free speech," Craft says. "It is up to those of us who belive that there is no greater system on earth than democracy, even if it means giving a voice to those with whom we disagree."

Barbara Dority is the President of Humanists of Washington, the executive director of the Washington Coalition Against Censorship, and cochair of the Northwest Feminist Anti-Censorship Taskforce.
COPYRIGHT 1994 American Humanist Association
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1994, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Seattle, WA controversial nude TV talk show
Author:Dority, Barbara
Publication:The Humanist
Date:Nov 1, 1994
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