- You don't have to be high to understand 5 Dolla, but it helps.
"What I saw was intercourse," the Akron resident says. "This is beyond obscene. This had crossed into pornography."
It wasn't Cinemax that Valentine happened upon that night in September. It was Channel 15, Time Warner Cable's public access station for the Akron-Canton region. The program was Illmatic TV, an amateurish variety show. Of sorts. "We show, like, music videos, sit-down interviews, and whatnot," says creator Al Henderson of North Canton, who works for a local telemarketer by day. "Every now and then we might, like, have some strippers dancin' and whatnot."
Oh, and porn. A recent addition to the show, the nicely lit sex scenes are provided by a friend in L.A., who runs an adult-video business. "He would send me some footage of his girls and whatnot," Henderson says. He figures he's providing a public service by sharing previews of these not-yet-released skin flicks.
And, as Valentine would soon learn, Illmatic TV is not the only graphic show airing on Akron cable. But the self-styled decency crusader has her work cut out for her. The shows may defy good taste, but they're in complete accordance with the law.
Chris Barna just wants to get a chalupa without having to sign autographs. But unless he drives out of Akron, that's not going to happen. "We can't go through the Taco Bell drive-through without someone recognizing him," his wife says.
Barna produces the most popular show on Time Warner public access, The 5 Dolla Half Hour. Shot with a camcorder and edited in Barna's small house in North Hill, 5 Dolla (Saturday nights, 1:30 a.m.) is mostly about marijuana. Characters are often shown smoking from "the yard-long bong" or taking tokes from a doobie the size of a banana. Pot "has too many uses medically, socially, and industrially for that to . . . um . . . be that bad of a something to have that many uses worldwide," Barna explains in one long exhale.
Barna's partner, Maurice Thomas, maintains that 5 Dolla is tame compared to other shows. "We never have full-blown penetration," he says. "But, you know, on the intro, there is a vagina smoking a cigarette."
Anything Goes (Saturday nights, 3:30 a.m.) showcases local comics, local performers, and local boobies. Women sign up with the show's producer, Anthony Hudson, to flash the camera. They meet the crew at a "sponsor house," where the topless segments are taped. "There is nudity, but no sexual contact," says Hudson.
For hardcore sex scenes -- some of which are homemade -- tune into Rudy Robinson's Softballin' (Saturday nights, 12:30 a.m.). His show caught the attention of a local councilman, who tried to get Time Warner to air city meetings in Softballin's time slot to keep it off the air. Robinson retaliated by editing tape from a meeting together with porn scenes and airing that for a while.
Robinson could not be reached. He's been "anti-press," Hudson explains, ever since the Beacon Journal wrote unflatteringly about his show. Hudson chuckles at the memory of Robinson's creative editing of the council-meeting tape. "I sometimes ask him, 'What the hell are you doing?'"
The president of AROC (Actively Reviving Ohio Communities), Bonnie Valentine has launched a campaign to rid Akron of the miracle of free porn. She has sent e-mails to Time Warner, the Akron City Council, and the city law director, as well as "senators and the governor, all the way up the line." She claims to have received dozens of phone calls complaining about the public-access filth. "I network with block-watches, so I know a lot of people."
Dave Muntean, assistant to the Akron law director, sighs loudly when he hears her name. "We've received an e-mail regarding her dissatisfaction with some of the programming," he says. "It's a public forum. Neither the city nor Time Warner can edit or make any judgment about the content." Defining "pornography" is left to the courts. And even if there were a lawsuit, the programs would continue airing until there is a ruling. "If there is any prior restraint or editing of the content, that obviously raises some First Amendment concerns."
The law is on the side of the amateur pornographers and potheads. In the past, cable operators pulled public-access shows at their discretion. That changed in 1996, when Denver-based producers sued the FCC, claiming that cable companies were overstepping their bounds. The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that a "cable operator's veto" violates more rights than it protects. Since then, on-air drug use and even nudity have been fair game. All Time Warner can legally do for disgruntled subscribers is to filter out the channel at their homes.
"We are not permitted to pull the program," says Bill Jasso, the vice president of public affairs for Time Warner in Akron. However, he does make sure to schedule adult-oriented programming during the "safe-harbor hours," between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. "Is there programming on that channel that I would not want my daughter to see? Absolutely. And I would take steps as a parent to block out that channel."
Valentine claimed an early victory last month, when all adult programming was replaced with a blue screen. She says that she talked to someone at Time Warner who told her they had taken everything off the air, because of a problem with Illmatic TV. (Barna was understandably paranoid about the cancellation of his cannabis comedy, 5 Dolla. "There's obviously a cover-up to keep me off, because I am kind of political at times.")
But Jasso offers a simpler explanation. "You are not dealing with professional producers," he explains. If they don't rewind their tapes before handing them in to Time Warner, the VHS decks will broadcast a blue screen.
So fire up the TiVo, kids -- technical glitches have been corrected, and porn is back on the air in Akron.