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Public Access TV is More than a Sexy Issue:(or, Norman, what is that on channel 29?)

Just when you thought you had seen it all, so to speak, there is Seattle public access star Troy J. Williamson engaged in what appears to be an oral sex act on TV. Suddenly, the screen goes fuzzy as the police raid the program and cart him off.
An historic day for common sense in public access TV, some would say, but the reason Williamson was arrested had nothing to do with televised obscenity. His appearance merely triggered recognition of him as a convicted sex predator who had not properly registered. It doesn’t matter what you do any more, so long as you fill out the right forms.

Williamson, in jail, was bitter. Here he finally achieves social status as a local TV talent, and the government uses a conviction for child rape and exploitation of minors to bust him right in the middle of his show. “I’m trying to get on with my life, but the system won’t let me,” is the way he put it. (You don’t need to write satires these days, the news is enough.)

An innocent might ask, why was he on-screen in the first place? The answer is that a misguided Seattle law requires the TCI cable company to let members of “the public” get on Channel 29 and do pretty much whatever they like. The city fathers and mothers clearly wanted to prevent political or ideological censorship. But what we get are protected opportunities for people to take off their clothes in a public TV station, and do various other things you can’t do on a public street.

Now, the temptation (for the innocent, as I say) is to pursue this subject down Censorship Lane, but that probably is a dead end. It will bring out the ACLU. So, forget that approach.

Instead, let’s redefine the issue.There is an overall problem with public access TV, and once it is solved, pornography on the channel need not be a particular concern. The problem to address is Channel 29’s terrible overall program quality. Public access TV promised a feast of community-generated programming and divergent views, but it resulted in a parade of stultifying banality. (I hope it is clear that I am not refering here to the public programing of Channel 28, which includes the excellent state-wide TVW, nor to the invaluable national cable channel, C-Span.)

As a channel surfer, one finds several local public access programs, for example, that consist of nothing more than someone putting his or her face close to the camera and then talking very, v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y. A ticking clock would be more engaging. Then there are the pairs of over-aged fraternity boys who chiefly guffaw, swear and congratulate themselves for being on TV–ad nauseam (which is a state the viewer reaches in about two minutes).

Yes, there are a few self-selected programs that are worth a diversionary watch, and even a serious interview program, Northwest Week. There also are some musical, ethnic or religious offerings that probably attract the attention of specific groups; say, banjo players or Arabic speakers. The average viewer might not appreciate them, yet such offerings represent exactly the kinds of diverse interests the city must have had in mind when the channel was created. But, unfortunately, they are not the steady fare.

Therefore, it is time for the city to admit openly that Channel 29 is mostly a wasteland. The city government extracted a valuable cable channel in return for granting the cable company a franchise, yet it has not seen to it that that asset is put to optimal use. The model of a Hyde Park Corner soap box, where any crackpot or misunderstood genius could speak, had merit in theory, but the station’s practical insistence that potential producers take a technical course seems to have screened out some of the genius/crackpots, and even people with interesting views. And it left too many somewhat technically competent bores. In Seattle, public access TV too often is not a free marketplace of ideas; it’s the dumpster behind the market.

The solution could be a new model, positioned somewhere between the standards of the Internet (none) and those of Public Television (high production values and professionalism). The city could better meet the original promise of public access TV if there was a citizens board to help select among potential volunteer producers.

The public access board would encourage positive programs in civic affairs, arts, religion and other fields, expressly without invidious bias. It would be allowed to recruit programs, rather than just waiting to see what walks in. Moreover, it could be admonished in general (and completely legal) terms to employ common sense about taste. This would avoid the censorship trap by making program selection an affirmative choice by the board, not a case of active rejection. We might not like all the board’s choices, but Troy J. Williamson’s live sex act probably would not be among them; nor would the dullards who for a half hour fix the dead eye of the camera with an equally dead eye of their own.

Eventually, there will be so many cable channels that none of this will matter much. But for now, the city’s control of access to a cable channel is a worthy resource for building community and communities. The city should stop squandering it.

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.