Cable show obscene in official's view
By BILL VARIAN, Times Staff Writer
TAMPA -- Ronda Storms fast-forwards the tape of the public access television show until she gets to the part where the woman disrobes and climbs into the shower.
"By the way, this is not obscene right here," says the Hillsborough County commissioner.
Soon the woman is washing her bare buttocks in full view of the camera.
"Still not obscene," Storms adds with a tap of the pause button.
She fast-forwards some more, past the male narrator with the goatee who is wearing a nun's habit.
"He, thankfully, never exposes himself," Storms says with another pause.
Finally, she arrives at the focus of her scorn: a close shot of the woman's vagina as she fondles herself.
"This is where it gets problematic for me," Storms says.
Scenes such as this have prompted Storms to call for a criminal investigation of the public access cable station that receives money from both Hillsborough County and the city of Tampa.
She says one of the station's programs, this one called The Happy Show, has crossed the obscenity line.
Storms is asking State Attorney Mark Ober to consider pressing charges against Charles Perkins, the show's producer. In a radio broadcast Wednesday, she urged listeners to call Ober.
If the state attorney can seek animal cruelty charges against a local disc jockey for broadcasting the butchering and castration of a pig, surely he can find a crime here, she said. Or at least consult a grand jury.
Ober fired off a terse response Wednesday. He reminded Storms, a fellow lawyer, that he can't factor public opinion or political pressure into a prosecutorial decision.
"For her to get on a soapbox on the issue to influence my decision is disappointing to me," Ober said. "I will not be influenced by a phone-calling campaign in this case or any other case."
Nevertheless, the two will meet Monday to discuss the matter.
Storms said the issue was first reported to her by a constituent who had inadvertently tuned into the program and said she found it obscene. The commissioner solicited a tape of the show, which aired at 11 p.m. March 5 and March 12 on the city and county's access channels, and agreed.
Perkins, 26, has produced a show off and on for the public access stations since at least 1996. He wields an offbeat sense of humor, performing as different characters and using a variety of props.
During the shows in question, Perkins broadcast tapes of women exposing themselves.
He said his show took a more risque turn in January when his program was relegated to an 11 p.m. time slot. Late night programming has traditionally been geared to more "mature audiences."
"If they're going to treat me like an adult-oriented program, then that's what I'm going to give them," Perkins said.
Gregory Koss, executive director for the Tampa Bay Community Network, which runs the station, said the time slot was assigned by lottery. He said he is powerless to rein in the program's content.
Once the government decides to open airwaves to the public, it cannot discriminate. He said it's up to the courts to determine what's obscene.
"What I can't do is look at a program and say, 'That looks extreme to me. I'm not going to air it,' " Koss said. "That's prior restraint. I can't do it."
He said he regrets that the issue is casting a bad light on the station, which provides a forum for people who would otherwise have no access to broadcast outlets. That includes underprivileged teenagers, who are trained to use the station's equipment and produce programs.
The station is an outgrowth of early government agreements that gave companies access to county cable rights. As part of those contracts, the companies agreed to set aside channels for public, government and education access that weren't guided by commercial interest.
Storms got a similar response from the county's Citizens Advisory Committee in October after she complained about a program called Insanity Defense. In that talk show, a woman wearing a thong is shown having her buttocks whipped.
She lost a fight to scale back county funding, but said she may again try to hit the station in the pocketbook if she makes no headway with Ober. If public access is so important to people, then the people who want to be on the shows should have to pay for the costs, she contends.
"I still say then we shouldn't fund it," Storms said. "I don't give a flying flip why public access was created in the first place."
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