Published Friday, February 1, 2002

Cable access move sparks censor debate

Producer decries Berkeley's decision to change the hours of a local adult program

By Greg Cannon
CONTRA COSTA TIMES

BERKELEY -- With its rich history of political protest regularly in evidence on downtown streets, at City Hall and on the UC Berkeley campus, this city enjoys a well-earned reputation as the birthplace of the modern free speech movement.

But a local cable television producer says a decision to shift adult-themed programming on the local public access cable television station to the wee hours of the morning amounts to censorship.

The move has prompted a potentially touchy debate about where decency standards lie in a famously liberal community where people defy local laws to march naked through city streets and where a nude man addressed the City Council several years ago.

Frank Moore has produced "Frank Moore's Unlimited Possibilities," a frequently erotic-themed variety show, and served as the local sponsor for the Dr. Susan Block show, a sex education and entertainment show produced in Los Angeles, for about a year and a half.

These programs, with their sexually explicit content, have been shown at 10 p.m. or later, putting them within the so-called safe harbor of late-night and early-morning hours when children are assumed to be somewhere other than in front of a television. The 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. window for adult material was established by the 1996 Supreme Court ruling that said public access programming is protected speech.

But, prompted by a flurry of complaints from concerned parents, the board of Berkeley Community Media, the nonprofit group that runs the city's two public access channels, recently cut the hours such programming can be shown.

Moore says the decision to bump sexually explicit programming to 2 to 4 a.m. turns the safe harbor into a ghetto when no one's watching, resulting in de facto censorship.

"This is silly and extremely scary," Moore wrote on his Web site in a recent appeal for support.

Public access officials stress that no programs have been bumped from their current times slots.

"They said they didn't want anyone engaging in sexual activity nude (outside of those hours)," said Brian Scott, BCM's executive director. Since the board's action, Scott has personally reviewed all programs that might stray past that line, but hasn't found any that have.

"We certainly don't want to censor programming," Scott said. "We'll just keep monitoring it."

Block criticized the move. "That's really ridiculous," she said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles. "Hardly anybody stays up that late or gets up that early. It's a real no man's land and that's why they want to do it."

It was an episode of Block's half-hour show in which a nude woman performed a sex act on herself that apparently drew the most complaints from parents whose children had come across the show while up late on New Year's Eve.

Block said the public access show, which is shown in Southern California and New York, has much in common with a show she does for HBO that is shown as early as 11 p.m.

Berkeley's public access is paid for by the city with proceeds of its franchise agreement with cable provider AT&T Broadband.

In a 1996 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court said that public access stations can regulate when programs are shown, but can't regulate their content.

The only limit is the law banning obscene content. But defining what's obscene is left to individual communities, although typically it's the courts that decide when cases are prosecuted.

Berkeley may be one of the first communities to try to formalize those standards. "At this point no one has been willing to step up to the plate and say we're going to establish what those community standards are," Scott said.

And with good reason, say community media advocates. Putting obscenity standards down on paper is a "very sticky" proposition, said Bunnie Riedel, executive director of the Alliance for Community Media, which represents 1,500 public access groups nationally. "Human nature dictates that as soon as you write down what you can't do, people do it."

Deciding whether a program can run by judging it against a set of standards could amount to prior restraint of free speech and a huge headache for public media groups, Riedel said. Better to show everything and rely on the courts to decide should prosecutors allege that the line has been crossed, she said.

Local producers are obligated to let BCM know if their shows contain adult content, and ultimately they're responsible for that content: not BCM, not the city, and not AT&T.

Board member Kari Shaw voted for the new hours. She said the move is not perfect but called it a temporary measure until the board and the public can give the matter the discussion it deserves, beginning with a Feb. 19 meeting.

"I felt that we were getting enough complaints from enough different areas that we should do something in the interim until we can figure out what to do," Shaw said.

Moore said he's opposed to any scheduling constraints, but he can accept the 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. window. Block said she respects people's opinions and their desire to keep her show from their children, even if she disagrees with them.

But Block said relegating programs to times when no one's watching is wrong. "Public access is the people's medium," she said.

Reach Greg Cannon at 510-262-2713 or gcannon@cctimes.com.


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