"This was raw, right in your face," admits Jason Neff. "But this is what's happening right down the road." Neff is referring to the content of the February episode of "Ballyhoo," a local television show about film and filmmakers that Neff produces and directs. Time Warner Communications, which airs "Ballyhoo" eight times a month on its channel 21, pulled the drag-themed February show after receiving complaints about it.
And Neff now is stuck. Time Warner won't air the episode, not even in an edited form. Period. And the cable giant won't tell him what he can do to avoid the same thing happening in the future.
On the air for nearly two years, "Ballyhoo" shows short films, interviews filmmakers and sends its host, Anne Deason, out on the town to shoot segments. The show is basically a volunteer effort. The Frameworks Alliance, the nonprofit that produces the Central Florida Film & Video Festival, provides a little money. Time Warner donates the air time.
For the drag-themed episode, they showed the short film "Sex Insurance Inc." and clips from the feature-length musical "The Isle of Lesbos," both of which are packed with bawdy satire. In between, segments filmed at the gay bar Southern Nights show drag queens onstage and backstage, then Deason camps it up for a lip-synch number.
Neff and his crew were being, well, optimistic -- perhaps delusional -- to think that certain parts of the show wouldn't raise eyebrows, not to mention some people's ire. In particular, the clips from "The Isle of Lesbos" include a banner announcing the name of a fictitious town: Bumfuck. A dildo is shown for a few seconds during a musical number with an S&M theme. The Southern Nights scenes include the word "pussy" and a bit with fake pubic hair.
"I knew there would be a couple of questions," says Neff, who notes that the only guidelines he ever got from Time Warner were that he couldn't show nudity and couldn't say "fuck" and "shit."
While Neff was putting the episode together, "What I was trying to do was to get them to tell me specific things that I couldn't show." Like the banner. "I said, ‘Look, can I show this or can't I?'"
It aired three times, "Bumfuck" banner and all. But the two complaints, from what Time Warner told Neff, didn't arise from specific images but the show's general content.
"Somebody objected to some of the content," says Johnny Langley, production manager at Time Warner. "The objections were based on that people were [channel] surfing and just came across [the program] and were offended by it." Are two complaints enough to have a show pulled? "It was enough to make me review it," says Langley.
Neff offered to make whatever changes were needed to make it acceptable. Should he edit out sections? Should he blur out the banner?
But Langley says that minor changes wouldn't have been enough. "To have to edit it out probably would've meant to change the entire program," he says. "It just didn't look like it could be fixed." Langley points out that the banner is in the background for "an extended scene."
Without any recourse, Neff is in something of a pickle when it comes to Time Warner. "I still need to be able to work with them," he explains.
That's because there's no other local-programming outlet in Orlando, which has educational and government channels but no public-access channel. Time Warner's channel 21 puts on a handful of locally produced programs, including the music show "Bootleg Orlando," a UCF news program and a dating-advice show with Orlando Weekly's Michelle Valentine. The TV preview guide and syndicated shows make up the bulk of the air time.
Langley describes channel 21 as "a community-programming channel, and as such we try to put on programs that are diverse, culturally diverse, and serve segments of the community." Nonetheless, he's perfectly blunt: "For channel 21, the content control is ours."
In contrast, in the world of public access, which is adamantly grass roots and nonjudgmental, the control rests with the community. Lance Turner, with the Campaign for Public Access, calls public-access TV a town square in which ideas, passions and criticisms can be freely aired. With Time Warner's "community access" channel, "You don't know what the rules are," says Turner. Public access is governed by a familiar rule: the First Amendment.
The Campaign for Public Access was founded in September when it was discovered that Orange County's cable-TV franchise ordinance didn't include a provision for a public-access channel. The group raised a stink, and now the provision exists but needs to be approved by the county commissioners.
Approval won't necessarily be easy. Time Warner has been vehemently fighting the provision. For example, prior to a fall meeting Time Warner assembled a tape of what Turner calls "the most hard-core examples of what is on public access" and distributed it to every commissioner and media outlet in an attempt to create opposition to the proposal.
Turner isn't impressed by Time Warner's donation of air time to "Ballyhoo." "They're giving away something that belongs to the public already," explains Turner.
At 8 p.m. on Saturday, March 27, the Campaign for Public Access will host an event, The Best of Public Access, at Gallery 6 Eleven during which they'll show the banned drag-themed "Ballyhoo" and a new, as-yet-unseen episode. For more information, call the Campaign's hotline at (407) 621-3356.