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Public access TV promises to become a little less public

The idea of dipping into Access Houston's till has raised the concern of at least one councilperson. Last week, City Councilmember Eleanor Tinsley wrote the city's regulatory affairs office about her concern over the fund shift and its possible impact on "more or less amateur producers using Access Houston." Tinsley said she had no problem with giving HCCS a channel, but "what I do not understand is why the city should be supporting the cost of HCCS programming on that channel, particularly if it reduces the funding available to community productions which have no independent source of income."

To make up for the lost funds, Access Houston will expand and increase its fee schedule for recording and producing programs for its sole remaining outlet, the Public Access Channel. The drive to self-sufficiency has already led Access Houston to, on June 1, expand and increase its fee schedule so that some shows that previously were produced for no charge will have to start paying. Access Houston's Hamilton emphasizes that do-it-yourselfers will only have to pay user fees for equipment, but if a studio or Access personnel are needed, fees will be charged. For most of the 70 to 80 programs a week that are now broadcast on the current three public access channels, the introduction of fees may prove prohibitive, keeping them off the air.

"One of the things I fear is that now that we have to start charging, we'll lose a lot of the small arts organizations," says Hamilton. One definite victim of the new fee structure is the live political talk show Pressing Issues, hosted by local attorney David Jones. On the air for four years, the weekly show featured political and media guests fielding live phone call-ins. Although he'll consider taping the show without the call-ins, Jones says he can't commit to fundraising to underwrite his show, which previously cost him nothing, but with the changes would have cost him $350 a show.

"It's very fitting for Houston not to have a public affairs discussion on television," Jones says. "That's consistent with Houston's political life. I'm not surprised I'm having to battle to keep an Access Houston show on politics alive."

Other live shows are also on the chopping block, including American Computer Enthusiasts. But while these are dropping away, Access Houston is putting together efforts to market the remaining Public Access Channel, soliciting writers, artists and theatrical types to consider producing programming. "Before, it was whoever walks in the door, walks in the door," Hamilton says. "Now we're going to be going out into the community."

Hamilton admits that this will only add to the crowding of Public Access Channel's "free speech environment." But Beth Romney, general manager of Access Houston, adds that those people who are uncomfortable that city government, HISD and HCCS will be filibustering over three of the four channels once funded by subscriber fees don't understand the way the cable franchise is set up.

And Kathy Mosley, deputy assistant director of the city's finance and administration department, which oversees Houston Access' budget, doesn't see a problem either. "Technically, those three channels were never public channels," she says. "It was great [to make all three available to the public], but it's always been the city's intent from the original Access in the mid-'80s [that] there would be two educational [channels] and one for the public. What we're doing now is finally making sure that's the case."

Access' Romney concurs. "There has to be one channel provided for public access. Those others, people have it in their minds they are public access channels, but they are really not and never were."

Of course, that "never were" lasted most of a decade and lured a large number of shows onto the air. So while the changes may be legal, there remains the question of whether they do anything to enhance the public's access to what has been considered, by fiat if not by legislation, the public airwaves. Does going from three channels to one and increasing the price of admission make it easier for the public to participate?

Erstwhile political talk-show host Jones thinks it relates to power, or lack thereof. "Access Houston is a lightweight on the political landscape, it doesn't have much muscle," he says. "It makes it easy to pick on. That, plus bureaucratic inertia, is probably responsible for the position it's in."

Meanwhile, the chances for a public upswell over any of this seem slight. Estimates are that about 15,000 people view an Access program if it's broadcast five times. The fewer times it is aired, the fewer people see it. And if it doesn't make it on the air at all, well, the paying public has 43 other channels.

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