Cable-TAP invites you to produce community programming," teased a flyer distributed to nonprofit and educational groups around Dade County.
To the operators of the Miami Beach-based Alliance Film and Video Cooperative, Cable-TAP's offer of airtime for a TV series seemed like the ideal opportunity to showcase the work of local filmmakers. So this past month Alliance co-director William Keddell submitted a half-hour tape of four short works.
Keddell figured the Alliance, a nonprofit organization that gives classes in film and video production, would make an ideal pairing with Cable-TAP, which is funded by license fees paid by Dade's ten cable companies and run by Metro government and the Dade County Public Schools. The offbeat, experimental works produced by co-op members, Keddell reasoned, were bound to stand out amid the less polished fare that airs on Cable-TAP's Channel 35 and Channel 36. Besides, the public-access organization's manager, Martin Yoffe, had already given Keddell the go-ahead to produce a series of twelve half-hour shows featuring new works by local film and video artists. The series even appeared in Cable-TAP's June program guide, occupying the 9:00 p.m. slot on Fridays.
Which made it all the more surprising when Yoffe rejected Keddell's submission on the grounds that one of the four films contained profanity, specifically the word ass. Dismayed but not overly discouraged, Keddell substituted a piece that he figured would be less controversial. That too proved unacceptable -- this time, he was told, because of nudity.
Mark Holt directed the first video, Living in the Margin of a Margin. The four-and-a-half-minute film deals with a gay man's feelings of alienation in Miami, and contains barely any sexually charged material. (Aside from the objectionable use of the word ass, a 25-second sequence in which a go-go boy imitates Michael Jackson's crotch-grabbing choreography is about as risque as it gets.) Headlock, the short film Keddell submitted when Cable-TAP nixed Holt's piece, seems equally innocuous. The topic is a group of female bodybuilders who earn a living by allowing men to caress their "Amazonian physiques" in $300 "worship sessions." The women are shown wearing skimpy workout suits typical of weightlifting competitions aired on ESPN but do not strip or have sex with their clients. Director George Richardson points out that his film was screened at festivals four times in New York and once in London.
"It's bare ass on television!" sputters Marci Crawford, production supervisor for Cable-TAP. "There's no nudity and profanity allowed on television." She's right about that: Cable-TAP's program guidelines expressly forbid such salaciousness.
But does an ass constitute nudity or profanity?
"There's nothing there that's on the outer edge of anything," asserts Don Chauncy, who works as a film and video librarian for the Miami-Dade Public Library System. "For them to reject a show because it contained these two pieces is a dire omen."
"Cable-TAP doesn't get to make these choices," declares Robyn Blumner, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. "They have to show controversial material."
In the ACLU's estimation, Cable-TAP's bottom line is unconstitutional. There is even a local precedent. In 1983 the City of Miami passed an ordinance banning any "obscene or indecent material" from cable television. Two years later a federal appeals court threw out the ordinance, deeming it unconstitutional. In 1984 the U.S. Congress passed the Cable Communications Policy Act, the first major legislation governing cable television. Acknowledging the value of public-access channels, Congress forbade their censorship, explains Marjorie Heins, director of the national ACLU's Art Censorship Project. Individual communities were still free to ban obscenity, says Heins, but in order to do so they had to prove that a particular work appealed to prurient interests, was devoid of serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific worth, and taken as a whole violated contemporary community values.
Historically, that has been a tough standard to apply, which makes it particularly galling to conservatives. Two years ago North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms spearheaded a move to rewrite the law to make indecency, as opposed to obscenity, the touchstone; this would skirt attempts to exempt works of art. That law was passed but it was immediately challenged in court, and a federal judge in Washington, D.C., has ruled the law cannot be put into effect until the issue is resolved.
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Cable operators in both Denver and San Francisco, however, cited the new law when they labeled two public-access programs "indecent" and yanked them from the air. Denver Community Television objected to a comic video produced by a local gay theater group that included a simulation of oral sex. Viacom, a San Francisco cable company, refused to carry programming produced by Erotica, S.F., which featured scenes from a fetishists' party and consumer information regarding sex toys. The producers of both censored shows have sued; the cases are still in court.
The Alliance's William Keddell says he and his fellow filmmakers plan to attend a meeting of Cable-TAP's directors scheduled for July 28, to clarify what he refers to as the organization's "censorship criteria." Robyn Blumner confirms that an attorney from the ACLU will accompany the Alliance to the meeting. Depending on the outcome, Keddell adds, the co-op might decide to file a lawsuit.
Cable-TAP manager Martin Yoffe says such drastic steps probably won't be necessary, especially if the directors' committee reverses his original decision and agrees to accept the videos after all. "But we feel that we have the right to limit indecency," he insists. "The question is whether this committee will consider it appropriate or inappropriate. If you want to consider that censorship, that's fine.