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Public access TV promises to become a little less public

For four years, Emerson Chu has helped produce a one-hour nightly news show about events in Houston's Chinese community. Though fiercely appreciated by some, the TV show, broadcast in Chinese, has an audience small by most television standards. Commercial stations would be hard-pressed to find a spot for it. That's why it ended up on cable channel E2, one of the three channels that for almost a decade have been open to anyone in Houston with the energy, and interest, to use them.

Soon, though, Chu may find himself canceled. Access Houston, the nonprofit organization set up by the city to provide the public an entry point to cable television, is about to lose two of its three channels and, in part as a result, have its operating budget cut by a third. The loss of the two channels means that Access Houston will have to squeeze the 43 shows that now air on cable E1 and E2 onto the Public Access Channel -- a channel that already has its own slate of regular shows. And while representatives of Access Houston insist that nobody will be shut out of air time as a result of the reduction in channels, some show producers are not quite so optimistic.

Emerson Chu, for example, doubts that Houston Chinese TV will survive as a seven day a week program in its 9 p.m. time slot. A mix of Asian news and events produced by Texas Chinese Television, Houston Chinese TV is just one of the ethnic news programs to find a home on E2. Indeed, E2 presently broadcasts 12 foreign-language programs, including shows in Vietnamese, Arabic and Hindi.

"I hate to see the changes," says Chu. "But there's nothing I can do.... I don't know what they're going to do, but there are going to be changes. The bottom line is money. They want to cut the budget." Chu adds that "Warner Cable has to realize that many people in our community subscribe [to cable TV] because of this program."

Whether that's true or not, the city has apparently decided that two of the cable channels now given over to public access programming would be better used as outlets for the Houston Independent School District and the Houston Community College System. If the change is approved by City Council -- and almost everybody believes it will be -- then in a few months E1 will become the property of HISD, and E2 will be handed over to HCCS. HISD currently broadcasts some shows, including sporting events, on E1, but under the proposed arrangement it would totally control the channel. The extra air time would apparently be dedicated to educational programming. Exactly what HCCS would do with its channel, though, is uncertain. No plans have been announced, and there is some indication that HCCS officials might end up turning big chunks of time on their channel over to someone else. That's led some to question whether HCCS -- or HISD, for that matter -- really needs its own TV outlet. And if it doesn't, the question continues, then why is the change being made?

A few critics have suggested that the ultimate aim is to turn at least one of the channels back to Warner Cable, which could then use it for commercial programming. These critics point to the firing of former Access Houston director Tom Cantrell, who was let go last August amidst his charges that Mayor Bob Lanier wanted to eliminate Access Houston completely, redirect funds from its budget and let Warner have more channels for its own use. Shortly after Cantrell was fired, Joe B. Allen, attorney for Warner during its franchise renewal request, speculated that the public access channels might briefly disappear or eventually be run by some entity other than Access Houston.

Even though what Cantrell described appears to be coming true, at least partly, Vince Hamilton, deputy general manager of Access Houston, insists that conspiracy theorists are off the mark.

"There's no such thing as 'reining in' [public access]," Hamilton says. "The city has said it wants Access to continue. It's a clear message. The good news is that we will still be here. I think we just put on a new face."

That new face may not be one everyone likes, but it appears that the changes are close to a done deal for this Lanier-led Council. Included in those changes is the proposed shifting of $200,000 from Access Houston's budget to HCCS' to help finance the startup costs for its takeover of E2. Presently, Access Houston gets its funding from a 33-cent fee added to each cable subscriber's monthly bill. Half of the funds the city collects from that dedicated fee goes to the Municipal Channel, which broadcasts City Council meetings and other city government functions. The remaining half of the funds now goes to Access Houston for use in running E1, E2 and the Public Access Channel.

Taking $200,000, or about one-third of its budget, from Access Houston and handing it to HCCS will mean that the bulk of the money collected from cable subscribers for public access will be financing three channels meant solely for governmental use. And some suspect that the $200,000 won't be enough. The five-year plan is to wean HCCS off city cable funds by dropping to 24 percent of the Access budget in year two and gradually phasing out support completely by 1999. But if HCCS has a difficult time producing programs and running a channel, the possibility exists that the channel could be given back to the city and then to Warner.

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