Published on Save Access (

IN: Public access unplugged

By saveaccess
Created 09/23/2007 - 9:53am

from: Post Tribune [1]

Public access unplugged
September 22, 2007

By Andy Grimm Post-Tribune staff writer
Public access channels across Northwest Indiana may go dark later this month as local leaders look for a way to extend the 20-plus season run of local, low production-value programming.

For more than two decades, cable TV subscribers have had a slate of locally-produced shows that spanned the gamut from high-minded (town council meetings and local political commentary) to lowbrow (pop culture phenomena such as "Jackass").

The programs were the result of franchise deals brokered between cable companies and local municipalities during the 1980s, when the companies needed to lay cable on public right-of-ways and cable competed with only TV antenna for viewers.

Those deals will largely be replaced by a new, statewide franchise agreement that does not require cable companies to provide any local content, nor to staff production studios. Comcast, the company that provides service to most of Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties, will shutter its public access studios Sept. 28.

Comcast pulls plug on public access channel

When Comcast and other cable companies drop their public access programming next week, there'll be no new episodes of "Behind the Star" with Porter County Sheriff David Lain, viewers' source for crime-stopping tips, interviews with 4-H champions and, in once recent show, techniques for pet cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

While he acknowledges it may not have been must-see TV, Lain is disappointed Comcast is pulling the plug on the Portage studio that was home to "Star" and dozens of other community-based shows.

"We've always tried to highlight not only this department but so many other institutions throughout Porter County and LaPorte that really don't have any other voice," Lain said. "There are so many organizations that really need as much exposure as possible."

That exposure -- and there is little data on the ratings for public access programming --will get harder to find as local officials decide whether there is a place in their budgets to support access channels.

Can schools fill in?

The cancellation of public access began last year when the state Legislature created a statewide franchise agreement, which required only that cable companies provide channels for public access, but not the staff to film, edit and broadcast the films, Comcast spokesman Rich Ruggiero said.

"It's really about, this is what the law says our obligations are," Ruggiero said. "Going forward, we want to be competitive within the franchise laws."

Comcast, in fact, never supported the statewide deal, Ruggiero said. AT&T and Verizon, large telecommunications companies, are eager to get into the hundreds of communities where Comcast and other rivals are already established, without having to negotiate hundreds of individual franchise agreements, or building and staffing studios.

Satellite-based competitors like DirecTV never had to negotiate such deals and have never offered public access.

Comcast has discussed donating its studio equipment to the Portage schools, but Superintendent Mike Berta said the programming won't be public access as we know it. Portage students won't be the camera crews for City Council meetings, nor for regular folks who want to host a talk show.

"In a public-access world, folks can come in and schedule time to have a 15-minute show produced," Berta said "That takes personnel. That takes time to produce. I am not at all interested in becoming a production studio."

Berta also worries about producing shows for adults who aren't subject to school standards for decency, or a measure of editorial control.

Public-access host Gordon Bloyer, who was sued for slander for comments about a Portage police officer on a show in 1999, said few superintendents are going to want to take responsibility for politically charged commentary, either.

Internet and other options

Since Comcast closed the studio in Valparaiso, Bloyer has experimented with putting his show on the Internet using the popular video download site

"I think my show is going to be bigger than ever," Bloyer said. "I'm getting hits from all over the world."

Local communities often have opted for something less than total access to the public, government access, a version where programming is largely public meetings or shows by elected officials, all produced by city employees.

In East Chicago's case, public access TV was perhaps too vital for its own good. The switch to government-produced television came just before then-Mayor Robert Pastrick's failed run-off election against George Pabey. One of three anti-Pastrick talk shows airing at the time was scheduled to host state Attorney General Steve Carter to discuss a racketeering lawsuit against the Pastrick regime.

Pabey pledged to return public access once elected, but has yet to make the switch back.

Ricardo Moreno, host of the anti-Pabey talk show "Streetwise," said he hasn't been able to get his show on the government access lineup.

Necessary public service?

Valparaiso's Michael Essany became a minor celebrity thanks to his namesake talk show, which he taped in his living room with his parents serving as his crew, from 1997 until two years ago.

Essany's show eventually made it out of public access with a short run as a reality TV show on the E! network, chronicling Essany's quest to become the next Johnny Carson.

Was Essany's show providing a necessary public service or just low-budget entertainment? Essany, now 24 and a candidate for a Valparaiso City Council seat, points out that while his show occasionally booked A-list entertainers, he often featured local officials.

"You can make a lot of arguments against public access," he admits. "But I don't think any of them justify getting rid of it altogether."

Contact Andy Grimm at 648-3073 or

Source URL: