Restricted Access

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.

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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