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Cable program turns heat up on late night TV Sex scenes spark obscenity debate


AUSTIN, Texas -- No one knows exactly how many viewers were tuned in early Monday to "Infosex," a cable-access program on Austin Community Television (ACTV).

But plenty of people here are talking about what happened, live and in graphic detail, on the show that purports to examine the issues of gay life and safe sex.

Two men, using condoms, engaged in oral sex during the two-hour telecast, which began at midnight. That was followed by scenes of a man masturbating and other sexual acts between men. Now, local radio talk shows are featuring angry debates about the episode, television news programs are showing heavily edited images of the participants and a Travis County grand jury is investigating whether obscenity laws were broken.

In this university town that prides itself on its tolerant views, the controversy is seen as a crucial test of the boundaries of public-access television: How far can such a program be allowed to venture?

Officials in the county attorney's office, who subpoenaed a tape of the show Tuesday, said the issue goes beyond the First Amendment and freedom of expression.

"The First Amendment doesn't cover obscenity," said David Escamilla, ranking assistant to County Attorney Ken Oden. "There's also the issue of display to minors. In Texas, there's a display-to-minors law, and there has been for at least five years."

This is not the first time that ACTV, which was founded 20 years ago and is one of the nation's oldest public-access operations, has stirred complaints after airing explicit scenes.

In 1989, some viewers expressed shock about a program that featured a man wearing a fake penis while he slashed a bloody bag. In 1990, a program called "Dull-A-Vision" spurred the then-mayor into calling for a review of program standards after two women exposed their breasts in a strip-tease. And in 1991, "Dull-A-Vision" alternated scenes of people eating a meal with images of sexual intercourse, aborted fetuses and a man apparently committing suicide by shooting himself in the head.

ACTV officials said Wednesday that the producer of "Infosex," whom they declined to identify, has been suspended for 60 days, and that the four-month-old program would not be shown again until an internal inquiry is completed.

"I would hope that as people decide what is or isn't appropriate in the community," said John Downing, ACTV secretary and chairman of the University of Texas radio, television and film department, "they will at least realize the producer here was not trying to produce a gratuitous skin flick but was wisely, or unwisely, trying to alert people to the menace, the plague of AIDS and to give them advice on how to avoid contracting it. I hope, with all the issues involved, that that will not be lost."

Kent Benjamin, ACTV's programming manager, noted that the company's 160,000 subscribers have a choice of about 3,000 different programs each month, including public affairs forums, arts and entertainment shows and "lots of environmental coverage." Fully one-third of the programs are religious in nature, he said, with about 65 local churches producing their own shows.

"As an organization," Mr. Benjamin said, "we are content-neutral."

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