Public-Access TV Show Not For Clothes-Minded

Boffo the Clown was talking about censorship.

What has made this one of the most talked-about television programs ever shown on Seattle's local-access channel, though, wasn't what Boffo said so much as how Boffo said it.

Boffo was in the buff-o. Naked.

Let's go to our first caller.

"Flippin' through the channels, you certainly caught my attention," said one channel surfer who happened upon the show called "Political Diversities," telecast live one week ago, then again on Wednesday and Thursday, to local cable-TV customers on Channel 29. It also will appear tonight and several more times in the coming month.

The unidentified caller dialed the phone number flashed on-screen to ask why everyone on the program - even the camera operators - was topless, bottomless, everythingless. The caller approved.

Other viewers, though, have been less supportive of the blow struck for free speech.

"I don't appreciate the fact that my kids saw it during the day," said Julie Barrett, a credit manager who lives in Lake Forest Park. She called her cable company to complain after her 14-year-old daughter watched a rerun of the program Wednesday afternoon. Along with seeing Boffo, her daughter heard another caller deliver an unexpunged obscene message to Seattle's Mayor Norm Rice.

According to the public-access director at TCI Cablevision of Washington, the anti-censorship show has "generated more comment than any other program" in his 10 years at the local cable company.

"I usually get one or two calls a month" about local-access programs, said TCI's Scott Scowcroft. He had logged more than a dozen calls about "Political Diversities" by yesterday noon. He suggested a device that can be used to lock out certain channels for customers angry about what their children have seen and heard.

Many callers were referred to the show's producer and host, Philip Craft. By yesterday he had fielded several dozen calls, "a couple positive."

"I would be defined as a freedom-of-speech freak," said Craft, 29, a former school-bus driver and drummer in a "very political" but temporarily defunct Seattle band called Dogma Cipher.

"Political Diversities" is his first stab at producing a television show. It premiered in March and telecasts a new episode the first Saturday of each month.

A press release calls the show "a multimedia platform for alternative approaches to governing." Past guests have included socialists, anarchists, communists and members of the AIDS activist group ACT-UP.

Getting noticed on the city's cable-access channel is no easy trick. Usually, "Political Diversities" generates about one viewer letter per show, Craft said. To many viewers, the channel is an odd little island in the cable archipelago, lying on the map somewhere between HBO and C-Span.

To people such as Craft, it is an electronic Speakers Corner.

Franchise agreements between the city and local cable companies stipulate that each company make Channel 29 available for local-access programs, which Scowcroft schedules. Cable-subscription fees, not tax money, foot the bill that allows about 138,000 Seattle customers, and many others in King County, to view Channel 29.

Regulations do allow Channel 29 to limit obscene programming. But neither Scowcroft nor Debra Lewis, the city's cable coordinator, were prepared to muzzle "Political Diversities."

"Who defines what obscene is?" Lewis asked. "I don't think I sit as judge or jury to determine what goes on. From what I know has happened in other communities, almost anything seems to be OK on these channels."

Craft called his program an "artistic experiment on . . . censorship."

As part of the experiment, Craft introduced the show encumbered by nothing more than eyeglasses, a necklace with a microphone and a folded copy of the U.S. Constitution held in one hand.

"Sexuality is so exploited and marketed in our society," Craft said, "but the act of nudity is deemed perverse and censored. We're stressing that nudity has nothing to do with sex or moral perversion."

The nude segments actually made up less than half the program. For much of that time, the cameras focused above the waist.

The rest of the hour included videotaped segments with fully clothed rock journalist and free-speech advocate Dave Marsh, an Iran-contra-affair investigator and a man advocating legalizing hemp. There were also music videos by Sister Souljah and 2 Live Crew, and a segment where passers-by in Westlake Park were given the chance to say anything on TV. Often, what they said was unprintable.

For his part, Boffo - whom Craft introduced as a local performance artist - looked relatively at ease, perhaps because he was appearing somewhat incognito. He wore sunglasses, clown makeup and, on his penis, a red clown nose.

Craft acknowledged that, perhaps, many viewers found it difficult to concentrate on the finer points of the discussion between him and Boffo the Clown.

Said Craft, "We're more of a visual society."