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In 1999, the city transferred management of public-access stations from the cable company to the San Francisco Community Television Corporation, a 10-year-old nonprofit that had been running the government television station. At first, Access SF producers were supportive of the nonprofit, headed by executive director Zane Blaney. But when the station's board voted to implement a lottery system for what it argued would be a more equitable time-slot assignment process, it drew a line in the sand.
Blaney says there was a waiting list of some 150 producers who couldn't get shows when the SFCTC took over the station. Longtime producers argued they should be given priority, and that switching time slots every six months made it impossible to keep a loyal audience.
Some producers blamed the move for driving away some of their ranks even as the city negotiated higher subsidies from Comcast — which now operates the majority of cable service in San Francisco — that totaled more than $840,000 last year. Locally produced shows fell from 4,800 hours in 2002-2003 to 2,274 hours in 2006-2007, and critics say the station has lost its edge and a lot of its audience.
The lottery wasn't the only issue producers had with Blaney. They charge that he created a top-heavy, stagnant organization resistant to any new idea that didn't originate with him. Fundraising attempts were few and poorly executed, including a telethon that failed to raise even $1,000.
Additionally, some producers didn't like the new rules. Tapes had to be turned in five days before showtime, or programs wouldn't air. The board punished a handful of producers with suspensions for code-of-conduct violations. Adult-content shows were pushed back to after 11 p.m. when the board decided it had a responsibility to prevent such shows airing during hours when kids were likely to be watching. That included Dee Dee TV and a guy who had a show called D World ("D" for "dope"), on which a woman performed an obscene act with a beer bottle. While Blaney says the nonprofit never watches a show before it airs, those who tried to slip in nudity during the day — including when the producer of Brainiac included a clip of beastly breasts from the movie Frankenhooker — were told afterward to stop it or move to a later time slot. As Russell says of the station managers who restricted the time slots for racier content, "A bunch of gay Christians started running this station."
The producers divided into three camps: those who support Blaney, others who say they aren't "Zane haters," and those who have never forgiven him. Miles has his wife drop off his Skatin' Place tapes at the station since getting "kicked off" the board, while the haters still spit vitriol every chance they get. "When I look at his face, I get a puke!" producer George Geevargis says in his thick Persian accent, pointing at Blaney through the window after the recent meeting and then gesturing from his mouth.
Blaney has perfected the art of holding a poker face while being attacked. A former radio broadcaster, he speaks with an authoritative-sounding voice that critics interpret as patronizing. He defends his decisions, saying a small number of producers who were mad about the lottery system seeded discontent among a handful of others, who then became belligerent with the station staff. (His tales of his time at the station include many references to producers going "berserk," "over the top," and "off the deep end.") He says four directors left the board because they couldn't take the drama: "It did a lot of damage to a lot of people, and there wasn't even any real way to respond to it," he said.
Packing up his office, Blaney is planning a memoir about what he calls the failure of San Francisco to protect the public-access channels over the last 30 years and his experience with the station over the last 10. Its working title is Access to Hell. He says he supports BAVC's plan, but foresees the same people who fought him will fight the new management. In fact, they already are. "It will be no different for BAVC," he said. "What do you have to do to make people happy?"
Although dissident producers couldn't get rid of Blaney and the board in years of complaining, the telecommunications industry sank the station's leadership with one efficient law. In the late '90s, when competitors started installing broadband-fiber connections for Internet, TV, and phones in homes, traditional phone companies such as AT&T saw their market diminishing. They wanted to get into broadband, yet didn't want the headache of negotiating cable franchise agreements with every city. So they began hitting up legislatures around the country, persuading 20 states since 2004 to let them to set up one-stop agreements at the state level. Such legislation loosened the obligation to fund public-access television: Since average viewers now have YouTube and their own blogs, why do they need their own TV specials?
In California, Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez wrote a bill for AT&T that was sold to legislators as a way to increase competition among cable companies, thus driving down prices for subscribers. After the law went into effect in 2007, the promised price breaks never happened. What did happen was that 70 cities lost their public-access studios this year — including Los Angeles, Richmond, and El Cerrito.