Berkeley Public Access Station Hits 10-Year Mark: By MATTHEW ARTZ

Friday November 19, 2004

Among the hundreds of cable television stations available to Berkeley subscribers, only one has a prime time lineup that includes Jesus Loves His People followed by The Dr. Susan Block Show: Masturbation With The Pope. 

It’s BETV and today (Friday) its parent network Berkeley Community Media (BCM) is celebrating 10 years on the air. 

Begun in 1994 in a makeshift studio below the Shattuck Cinemas programming about 12 hours a day on one station, BCM now operates two stations that carry programming nearly 24 hours a day from its studio at Berkeley High School. One station BETV, channel 28, serves as Berkeley’s community public access station. The other, CTV, channel 33, is the government access station with a steady diet of public meetings, including the City Council, Zoning Adjustment Board, Rent Board and School Board. 

“We’re one of the few places around where people can come in and have a voice,” said BCM Executive Director Brian Scott.  

Just how many people are tuning in is unknown. Neilson, the company that tracks television viewership, doesn’t compile ratings for public access channels. BCM’s potential viewership is hindered by its hometown’s lukewarm reception to cable television. Scott said Berkeley has about 19,000 cable subscribers. That amounts to slightly more than one-in-three households, about half of the national average. For anyone without cable, BCM shows are simulcast on the network’s webpage www.betv.org. 

Getting a regular show requires joining BCM for a $40 annual membership and then enrolling in production classes that cost between $20 and $40.  

“I just love it,” said Piccola Evans, a Berkeley native who, with two weeks of training, debuted her interview program The Coco Mo Show in September. “My goal is to be a fraction of what Oprah Winfrey is. She’s my role model.” 

Berkeley resident and licensed physician assistant George Pearson said his long-running interview show Education Is The Best Medicine is designed to better inform fellow African Americans about current trends in health care. “Many black people are fearful of medical breakthroughs; they don’t want to be the guinea pig,” he said. “My show lets them make informed decisions.” 

Two shows are well established as the most controversial: Frank Moore’s Unlimited Possibilities, a variety show with explicit themes, and the Dr. Susan Block Show,” featuring a lingerie-clad sex therapist. 

In 2002, the City Council voted to move shows with adult content that had been aired after 10 p.m. until after midnight, but then backed off after the ACLU threatened a lawsuit.  

LA Wood, a local videographer who dropped his BCM membership last year, said the Block show, which is based out of Los Angeles, symbolized a more pervasive problem at BCM than sexually explicit content. 

“There has never been enough Berkeley-based programing,” he said, noting that a Berkeley resident merely has to sponsor a show from out of town to get it on the air.  

Wood blamed what he saw as BCM’s failings on a lack of financial support from the City Council, which he said has never adequately funded the network and promoted government access programing at the expense of public access. 

As part of an agreement reached with the Comcast Cable, the local cable provider, Berkeley gets 4 percent of cable revenues and then transfers about 40 percent of the proceeds to run BCM with the rest going to the city’s general fund. The deal, which expires in 2007, provides BCM with an average operating budget of about $300,000 in addition to a $900,000 equipment grant from the cable company. 

The contract is not as lucrative as deals reached by other California cities, and has left BCM with outdated equipment for much of its existence and a minuscule budget for training local producers, Scott said. 

However, he contended that under his four-year stewardship of BCM, Berkeley-based programming roughly doubled and now comprises between 60 to 70 percent of all shows on BETV. 

Scott said he would like to bring in younger producers, but that has proved to be a challenge. He said the UC Berkeley Film department has been inactive and that groups of university students who inquired about producing shows never followed through. Also, he said, BCM is not able to broadcast feature length local productions that are aimed at film festivals, because festivals prohibit prior screenings of submissions. 

BCM’s future will hinge on the dealings between the city and Comcast, Scott said. Even though the cable giant has sought to exclude public access franchises from recent deals with other cities, Scott said he remained confident that Berkeley would retain the stations and that BCM would continue to make strides. 

“We’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go,” he said.