A puppet, a senator and public access TV

Published May 6, 2007

Ever see the movie Wayne's World? It satirized a television institution: public access channels on cable TV.

Since cable spread across the country in the 1960s and 1970s, access channels have been a staple of U.S. television.

There are "public" access channels for citizens. There's "educational" access for schools. And there's "government" access for public meetings and such.

But in the session of our Legislature that just wrapped up, our lawmakers made changes affecting these channels, especially public access. Supporters fear public access might eventually disappear.

Now, if you are a veteran observer from the Tampa Bay area, here is a word-association quiz for you: Consider the phrase "public access channel, " and then think about who represents us in the Legislature these days.

Do any former Hillsborough County commissioners now serving in the Senate named "Ronda" come to mind?

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The changes in House Bill 529 deal with the fact that more and more telephone companies want to sell video and compete with the old cable companies. But what about the rules for access channels? The Legislature kept the existing number of channels while old cable contracts are in effect. But as new systems spread, and old contracts expire, the rules will change. Examples:

- To survive, access channels will have to show they are carrying at least 10 hours of programming a day, with limited repetition.

- Companies won't have to place access channels on their lowest, nondigital tier of service. That means fewer people might see them.

- Communities that didn't have access channels beforehand will be entitled to ask for two (not three).

In that last rule, especially, the backers of public access smell trouble. If there are two channels instead of three, who is most likely to get the boot?

Another rule that affects public access only: A majority of customers have to say they want it. And the law also includes this sentence:


The video or cable service subscribers must be provided with clear, plain language informing them that public access is unfiltered programming and may contain adult content.


Those requirements were in an amendment initially proposed by our own state Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico.

In 2002, Storms made a name for herself in the County Commission as a critic of public access channels. It was the lewdness of some shows that galled her.

In an infamous reply, a guy with a program called The White Chocolate Show used a puppet made from a sock to propose indecent acts with a puppet that represented Storms.

It is fair to say that she never forgot the experience. Maybe White Chocolate never forgot, either, but only one of them went on to the Florida Senate, and to have a hand in writing the laws of the state.

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The video bill is one of many issues that the Legislature decided. Join me online on TroxBlog for a live discussion of the session from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on Tuesday. Go to www.tampabay.com, click on the "Blogs" link at the bottom-center of the page, and look for TroxBlog.