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(photo by Byron Kennerly)

DOWNTOWN John Kerwin likes to refer to himself as the Robin Hood of public access.

The host of the late night comedy gab fest “The John Kerwin Show” would often attend tapings of a certain network talk show, take gifts given to the audience (some worth as much as $150) and then give them away to members of his small, but loyal following during tapings at the Time Warner Cable production studio on Nebraska Avenue.

“I take from the rich network show and give to the poor public access show,” Kerwin said.

But ever since Jan. 1, when a state law allowed cable companies to drop their long-standing obligation of providing free studios, equipment and training to the public, Kerwin and many other public access regulars feel like they are the ones who are getting robbed as they watch a valuable First Amendment platform crumble and many of their colleagues scrambling to find work in the entertainment industry.

“I’m not a politician, but certainly there is a way to keep public access alive, and I’d say that it is far more valuable than one may realize,” said Kerwin, who continues to produce his show at a private studio in Santa Monica but must now take money out of his own pocket to do so.

What happened?

A provision of a law passed by the state Legislature in 2006 allowed companies to no longer pay for public access, pushing that burden onto individual cities, which are struggling to make ends meet because of the ailing economy and the budget crisis in Sacramento. The law was designed to make it easier for phone companies to enter the lucrative video market by relieving them of costly contractual obligations. These companies, including AT&T, spent millions on campaign contributions to state legislators.

Now the state Public Utilities Commission, not city officials, will regulate and set conditions for new video-delivery contracts.

In Los Angeles County, 12 public access studios — including one in Santa Monica — that provided programming for 11 community channels, including channel 77 in Santa Monica, have been closed by Time Warner Cable.

Cities will still continue to collect franchise fees — Santa Monica receives around $650,000 a year from Time Warner while Los Angeles gets around $25 million — but many are already using that funding to produce government programming, which includes rebroadcasts of City Council and Board of Education meetings, as well as community news. In Santa Monica, that includes programs like “Santa Monica Update,” “Get Out” and “Be Green.”

Cities will also receive another 1 percent of gross revenues, but this money can only be used for capital expenses, such as purchasing equipment.

Some are using the franchise fees to close gaps in their general funds. To fund public access could mean making cuts to other local services, raising questions about how important public access really is, particularly in the era of YouTube where anyone can post videos online for the whole world to see.

“We need to look at the cost benefit,” said Councilmember Pam O’Connor. “We are having to balance things [because of the economy] and it may be that [public access] doesn’t provide the same bang as it had before. We haven’t evaluated all the pros and cons. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

<!– No LPSH –>“There are a lot of questions that need to answered.”

Making a game plan

Santa Monica city officials are currently in talks with counterparts in Los Angeles, West Hollywood and Beverly Hills to see if a regional approach would work best, with cities pulling money together, allowing a non-profit agency to manage the stations so there is no government interference with a person’s right to free speech.

Currently, City Hall spends $1.3 million annually on City TV programming, which includes a host of governmental and educational shows. The franchise fee from Time Warner this fiscal year is $691,500, said Robin Gee, the manager of City TV, which has won nine Emmy awards and is consistently voted the best government channel in the state.

“We are talking about a regional approach in order to create viable options,” Gee said. “We need to see what happens in L.A. and that will kind of give us the parameters we have available to address the situation.”

Not only are cities left with the obligation of funding production studios, they must also pay for playback, another added cost that was once covered by cable companies, Gee said.

“That was a great benefit to the city,” Gee said. “Time Warner provided playback 16 hours a day, 365 days a year. … Because of the law, we have to now do it ourselves, which meant buying new equipment, training the staff.”

The beauty of public access for residents is that they didn’t need to pay for cameras, operators or directors. In Santa Monica, Time Warner provided that. While some exploited this, producing what is often referred to in the business as “vanity programming” where on person sits in front of a camera and talks about their personal beliefs, others used public access as a way to tackle serious issues, such as police abuse.

The victims

Leslie Dutton of “Full Disclosure” is one of those people. She has reported on issues such as immigration, voter fraud and government accountability, attracting a loyal following that includes Santa Monica residents. Her work has earned her an Emmy. Dutton at one time filmed her show at the Time Warner studio on Nebraska Avenue, but she now producers out of her office in Marina del Rey.

Dutton is trying to organize other producers to raise awareness about the issue and put pressure on elected officials to use franchise fees they receive for public access. The effort has proved challenging given many people’s apathy when it comes to public access, but she has pledged to fight on.

“L.A. is key,” she said. “It’s the heart of the entertainment industry. If we go, others will follow.”

Santa Monica should make every effort to restore public access, Dutton said, because of its history of community activism. Dutton lived in the Pico Neighborhood for several years and remembers how engaged her neighbors were with City Hall.

<!– No LPSH –>“Santa Monica needs to make a commitment to public access,” she said.

Not only are the producers hurting, so are some of the former camera operators and studio managers, who are now without a job. Some producers had been working with studio managers for years and developed friendships that have now been altered.

“The people in Santa Monica always had a great vibe,” said Stanley Dyrector of the “Stanley Dyrector Show,” which filmed in Santa Monica for 14 years, focusing on the craft of screenwriting.

“There was always a positive buzz there,” Dyrector added. “They were gracious and for the most part, you could do whatever you wanted there. They were very helpful and made you feel at home. I miss them.”

There has been a lot of finger pointing since the law went into effect. Producers are upset with cities for not having a plan in place once the studios closed. They feel cities should have been more prepared since the law was approved two years ago. If nothing is done, they not only fear the cancellation of their shows, but also the loss of public access channels, which they consider an asset owned by the people, not to be auctioned off to the highest bidder by cable companies.

City officials are blaming cable companies and state legislators who approved the deregulation.

“Cities are hurting and now we are being asked to absorb yet another responsibility,” said Kate Vernez, assistant to the city manager in charge of governmental relations. “The timing is pretty tough right now.”

Tell that to Kerwin, who has dreams of becoming a late night talk show host on a major network. With the economy struggling, he has had to use his savings to produce his show, which includes a cast of 28 people, many of whom have gone on to work for major studios.

<!– No LPSH –>“It’s a lot of money, but I’ll find some way to make it happen,” he said.

YouTube isn’t the answer, at least for Kerwin, whose show requires three cameras, proper lighting and a director to make it come together. He can’t just sit in front of a Web cam. The higher production value, is one of the reasons why he has a shot at being a correspondent for Jay Leno and “The Tonight Show.”

“I think there needs to be more pressure on people to take [public access] seriously and not just see it as being dispensable,” Kerwin said. “It is important for people to express themselves and to be able to have a forum to discuss important issues or for entertainment, such as ours.

<!– No LPSH –>“All of Hollywood is vanity programming.”

kevinh@smdp.com

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