Goddesses, Politics And Porn: When Public Access TV Ruled Seattle | KUOW News and Information

Goddesses, Politics And Porn: When Public Access TV Ruled Seattle

Jul 30, 2015

Think back to a time before the Internet, before Netflix … a time when cable TV had a mere 57 channels. It was the 1980s and ’90s, the heyday of public access television, a wild and wooly experiment we haven’t seen the likes of before or since.

Seattle was a public access hotbed. Bill Nye the Science Guy's first TV appearance was on public access cable. At cable channel 29, the casual dial turner found things like The Bathhouse Theater’s production of “The Big Broadcast,” music programs featuring Seattle’s grunge movement, the naked body-painted New Age Goddess Kring, political shows with the Ku Klux Klan, conspiracy theory shows, a woman who channeled an ancient spirit.  

“I moved up from California a little over 20 years ago and I turned on the television and the first thing I saw was public access and I couldn't believe it!” said Judith Card. “I asked my mother what IS this, and she says it's public access.”

Card recalls watching “Political Playhouse,” a variety show about politics. “It just was kind of crazy and kooky and fun, and it just looked like something I wanted to be a part of. And within two weeks I was on the show.”

Letting It Rip

Richard Lee hosted the show 'Kurt Cobain Was Murdered' on public access TV in Seattle.
Credit YouTube

The free-for-all began after the federal government let local authorities regulate cable TV franchises. That unleashed a movement to require public access channels where anyone could put on a show.

“Up until then, the mass media was reserved for those who could afford it or those who were famous or those who had political connections,” recalled Scott Scowcroft, manager at Seattle public access cable TV in the '80s and '90s.

Seattle and King County became one of the largest community access experiments in the country, with over 100,000 households receiving the signal. “It was a wonderful play land where people could express themselves in ways that they never could before.”

To do a show you had to be a citizen of King County and promise not to air any commercial messages. Shows weren’t screened before they aired. The prevailing ethos was free speech television.

C.R. Douglas, now a Q 13 Fox TV analyst, said that in the mid-'90s he struggled to sell the idea of a public affairs TV show to commercial stations. But he was able to get “Northwest Week” on the air at channel 29. Soon he was interviewing mayors, U.S. senators, City Council members and writers.

Bitsy Bates makes Thanksgiving dinner.
Credit Courtesy ChannelingYourself.com

“There'd be days where I would come after the pornography show but before the cooking show or after the astrology show. It was a hotbed of craziness, but in a great way,” he said.

Scowcroft remembers a representative of the Ku Klux Klan who had a weekly program.

"Nice guy. We had another fellow disenfranchised from the Louis Farrakhan organization who had a weekly program as well,” he said. “On a scale of one to 10, the rhetoric on their shows was about nine and a half. One of my memories is that we have monthly meetings in our studios and they were both there. But they were respectful to each other. It was truly one of those amazing human dramas that played out.”

Going Too Far

Some wanted to push the definition of free speech. One programmer did a show reviewing pornography. “It started out pretty soft pornography,” Scowcroft recalled, “but eventually it got to be really rough stuff.  Parents would be tuning in and all of a sudden they see something that would be really shocking or worse yet they would find one of their children watching some pretty rugged programming on the channel.”

A disgruntled public access viewer sent videotape of the porn show to an executive at the cable TV company.

Yes we might follow a porno show, but I promise you I am legitimate and you will have a good experience.

“You can just envision this,” Scowcroft said, “he's in his office doing the day to day business of running a cable company and you get this package from some subscriber in Seattle. You open up you put the tape in. You might have a secretary around and other people. You hit play and all of a sudden here's this poorly produced show that cuts to this really terrible, you know awful programming. He blew a stack.”

The show was suspended. But the programmer sued to get it back on the air, alleging the suspension violated his free speech rights.

Card says public access became known for the shows with porn and naked people. “Everyone was typecast by the media,” she said. “All you would see in the newspapers it was all about nudity, and it colored the station in a certain way that I think not everyone wanted to be seen.”

C.R. Douglas was trying to get elected officials and authors to come on “Northwest Week.”

“I had to explain, yes I'm on the channel and yes we might follow a porno show, but I promise you I am legitimate and you will have a good experience,” he said. “It took some convincing, and I think there were a few guests that said I'm not going to touch you in that station.”

The End Of All That Freedom

Parents were upset. The cable company was upset. Politicians were upset. Public access cable lost support and money. “I am confident that it was that programming that scuttled it from here, in Oregon and Idaho and probably Montana and Alaska,” Scowcroft said. People in other places said they didn’t want “what happened up in Seattle” to happen there, he said.

Giving everyone that freedom of speech “was also the thing that brought it down,” said programmer JoanE O’Brien.

C.R. Douglas says that kind of cable access could never be duplicated today. “There is too much choice, and public access will never have the heyday it had in the ’90s because of that,” he said. “So there's a ton more choice -- that's the good side. The bad side is that we don't have that local amateur voice anymore.”

JoanE O’Brien and Judith Card are on a team producing a documentary about the heyday of Seattle Public Access TV called “Channeling Yourself.” They expect to finish it next year. Meanwhile they’ve set up a shelf at Scarecrow Video in Seattle’s University District with videotapes of the many original public access shows. They’re available for rent.