Silencing the Public

L.A. City Council set to vote on ending public access TV

Long under fire for its backroom deals and lack of transparency, the Los Angeles City Council is set to take a giant leap forward toward full government control of a key technology that allows the public to speak out on controversial issues.

On Wednesday, the council will vote on whether to kill public access television -- a resource that has allowed critics and commentators to speak out for more than 20 years.

State legislation opened the door to let cable companies off the hook of providing public access TV and the council is ready to implement the policy by allowing Time Warner Cable to close its 14 studios and local channels while protecting its own Channel 35, which features council meetings and various shows that are little more than propaganda for politicians and city programs.

It's not like cable providers are going broke in the recession. Time Warner is expected to earn about $6 billion in profits this year and service charges keep rising faster than inflation.

The problem is the city is going broke because of its inflated payroll costs, pet programs and sweetheart deals with special interests. Even with a long series of increases in fees, rates and taxes in recent years, the city faces a shortfall of $500 million -- one that's likely to get worse as the recession deepens.

The city gets about $25 million a year from cable TV franchise fees in the form of a 5 percent tax plus another $5 million from a 1 percent tax that has been used in part to various government and public access channels. While there are several options before the council -- including using as much as half of that money for public access -- the council has clearly indicated it intends to use the full $5 million for its own purposes.

Leslie Dutton, one of the providers of investigative reports on local and regional issues on public access TV, has done shows in September and in November on just how severe the impact of what she and many others see as overt censorship by City Hall.

With the decline in staffing at local newspapers and commercial TV stations, the absence of public access TV further endangers the public's ability to know what's going on at City Hall and to discuss issues of local importance without government interference or control.

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