'More local programs,' towns tell cable-TV companies

The fourth time Lenore Fenn came into the TV studio, she was put in charge of running the cameras.

Now, a year-and-a-half later, she's a producer for a weekly show carried on cable television to the 7,000 subscribers in this tidy, tree-lined Boston suburb.

It was a quick scramble up the ladder, considering she had no previous experience. But in the fast shuffle of community television, Ms. Fenn says, ''you get inhaled into the system.''

Across the country, hundreds of video volunteers like Ms. Fenn are creating original shows for cable systems. And now, more than ever before, communities are demanding a hefty chunk of home-grown programming when they negotiate franchises with cable operators.

Sue Buske, executive director of the National Federation of Local Cable Programmers, estimates there are 600 community-access channels wired into American living rooms. An exact count has never been tried. The cable industry plans to launch a major study next year to see where the channels are and how they are being used.

In the past, these channels have tended to function quietly in the shadow of their parent cable companies. Setting up studios and training volunteers is an expensive business, so many cable companies have tried to avoid it.

''But in the last two or three years, with so much franchising going on in urban markets, people are becoming much more aware of what community access is - and they're demanding it,'' says Ms. Buske. At the same time, she adds, city officials are becoming more savvy in their dealings with the cable operators. Generous access provisions have become a more common element in cable agreements.

The cable companies, for their part, have begun seeing bottom-line benefits in this unique brand of TV.

John Helmore, director of access services for Valley Cable TV in Encino, Calif., says his ''company is fairly progressive, in that it believes community programming will increase subscribers.''

Whether access gives an edge in selling cable services to subscribers is unproved. But many cable officials use it as a selling point, especially when trying to clinch financially attractive urban franchises.

The object is not to mimic commercial television, but to offer programming with a distinctly local flavor - a video version of the laundromat bulletin board, mixing in everything from original drama to high-school basketball and city hall meetings.

Public-affairs programming makes up the largest portion of access programs. In East Lansing, Mich., local volunteers produce a biweekly program on neighborhood issues. One recent program focused on the city's shoddy sewer system.

''We also do a lot of sports programming that nobody else would touch,'' says Ross Rowe, director of public access for United Cable Television in East Lansing. While Mr. Rowe says his company sees access as ''good community relations,'' he admits, ''we're here because at the time of the franchise, the law required it.''

In 1972, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) put cable companies into a legal headlock, saying they had to provide at least one channel for community access. That rule was dumped in 1979, as the result of a Supreme Court ruling.

As it now stands, communities are free to wrangle for whatever they can get out of the cable operators. This, say companies, has led to excesses. ''Every little town wants its own studio and two mobile vans,'' one company official laments.

The cable industry is backing a Senate bill that would, among other things, revamp access rules. Sponsored by Sen. Barry Goldwater (R) of Arizona, the bill would require companies to devote a maximum of 10 percent of their channels to community programming.

At the same time, it makes it illegal for communities to make the details of the access arrangement a condition in a franchise contract. Critics complain that this pulls the plug on the community input, which is fundamental to successful access television.

The bill isn't expected to clear Congress during this lame-duck session, but backers plan to reintroduce it next year. In the meantime, experts agree that some access channels are becoming as much a part of their communities as the local newspaper.

''People are tired of the Fantasy Islands and Love Boats,'' says Wendy Foreman, a production coordinator in Arlington. ''They want to see the soap operas and dramas going on right next door.''

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