Was It Something He Said?

Eight years ago, accountant and part-time guitarist Todd Berns landed a prime-time television slot–Sundays at 9 PM–on Channel 19, Chicago’s public access cable station. His one-hour weekly program, Songsation, began as a showcase for his original music, but after a couple of years it grew into something broader and more eccentric: a variety show featuring musicians, poets, actors, and dancers, spiced with original material by Berns. He wrote satirical cartoons, phony game shows, and snippets of fake newscasts or radically altered sitcoms, along with the occasional more direct philosophic or political message. The most extreme example of the last was his one-hour broadcast last summer of the on-screen words “God is a jag-off” (accompanied by silence), spurred by his mother’s diagnosis with terminal cancer. When his life is in balance, Berns says, the show is about 65 percent others and 35 percent him–mostly silly, rude stuff like promos for fictional TV shows such as “Cooking With Excrement” and “The Gay Hit Parade.”

Berns has produced over 400 episodes and featured more than 1,000 local performers. He’s built an audience, he says, mostly by catching channel surfers on their way to something else. He claims Songsation is the station’s most popular program and the most watched noncommercial TV variety show in the country. So he was taken by surprise two days before Christmas, when he got a call from CAN TV program director Lesley Johnson informing him that he was being booted into a late-night slot because of his show’s “mature content.” On December 1, he was told, the station received a viewer complaint about a fake commercial for a Flubber condom; as a result Berns was being exiled to the graveyard, 11:30 PM on Thursdays–a change he’s sure will cost him his audience. “There might be a small fringe element that watches television on Thursday night at that time. Does that compensate for losing a prime-time slot? [For me] it’s starting over from scratch.”

Berns says he’s been called on his “mature” content only three times in eight years, and hadn’t heard anything about it for the last two or three. The two previous incidents concerned cartoon ads for “Pro-Tex”–a combination bra and air bag that inflates in an auto accident–and for “The Les Boat,” as “innocuous as The Love Boat with lesbians on it.” Meanwhile, he says, CAN doesn’t have “a real guideline for producers like me, who work in the areas that are gray. I’ve asked them numerous times to please give me some guidelines. They only refer in a nebulous way to a city ordinance that they’re subject to–[censoring] something ‘the community would feel is objectionable.’ Since my last confrontation with them, very explicit shows like South Park and The Man Show have expanded public taste. These are the programs I’m up against on the [same] cable system carrying my show.”

He wonders if the show’s political content, which has increased over the last few years and he says elicits more complaints than the raunchy humor, might be the real problem. He responded to 9/11 with a three-episode memorial that consisted of two speeches by him and a one-hour segment showing only the words “Impeach Bush and Cheney before they start World War III.” The lectures suggested that, in his opinion, the Bush inner circle might have organized 9/11. In any case, he says, he’d like to negotiate with CAN and would be willing to alter the program to suit them if he could hang on to his time slot. CAN executive director Barbara Popovic denies that political content had anything to do with the change. “We wouldn’t do that,” she says. Rather, Berns’s programs “are in the area of indecent speech,” which, by city ordinance, can only be broadcast after 11 PM.

Berns says he’s been “working like a dog for eight years,” producing 48 hours of new programming annually. “The way they’ve tried to impose this makes me feel futile.” If they insist on the change, he says, “it’ll be difficult for me to continue.” At press time it looked like this Sunday’s show will be his last in the 9 PM slot.

Branding Ironies

I could hardly believe my ears: free-speech champion Kembrew McLeod was trying to shut me up. Just until Thursday afternoon, but still–wasn’t this a vile little lapse of his own standard? The University of Iowa professor, author of Owning Culture: Authorship, Ownership and Intellectual Property Law, and publisher of a semi-annual zine called Freedom of Expression (created to allow him to trademark that phrase) was coming to town this week to announce that he’s sending a cease-and-desist letter to AT&T. They’ve been using “Freedom of Expression” in ads for long-distance service without consulting him. He didn’t want me to tell anyone, he said, because he’d promised the New York Times a Thursday-morning scoop.

McLeod’s framed certificate from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office is one of about three dozen pieces in “Illegal Art: Freedom of Expression in the Corporate Age,” a multimedia exhibit opening here this weekend after a one-month run in New York (where it was mounted by Stay Free! publisher Carrie McLaren). Local sponsor In These Times will host the show in its offices from January 25 to February 21. The Chicago exhibit includes artists like Dick Detzner and Stuart Helm, formerly known as King VelVeeda, whose work parodies corporate culture and tests the limits of trademark law. The purpose of the show is to “look at the phenomenon of tightening intellectual property controls,” says In These Times associate publisher Jessica Clark. Related events include two nights of film, video, and sampled music during the Around the Coyote Winter Arts Festival and a panel discussion February 15 featuring Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig, who just took a beating in the Supreme Court on his challenge to a 1998 extension of the copyright term.

Lessig argued that retroactive copyright extension goes against the intention of the framers of the Constitution, who specified a “limited” period but left it up to Congress to decide what that meant. (Since 1790, the amount of time a copyright can be held has gone from 28 years to 95 years.) He says this is being done to protect large corporations like Disney, which would have seen the earliest Mickey Mouse films go into public domain if the extension had been blocked. As it is, if you spend your life acquiring real estate or businesses and leave them to your heirs, they can hang on to them forever. But if you spend your life writing books or songs, they will eventually be made available at no cost to anyone who wants to use, change, or profit from them. Lessig thinks that should happen sooner rather than later. His appearance is sponsored by the Public Square, the new name for a group that used to call itself the Center for Public Intellectuals but thought better of it.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.