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Homefront homeless

The monthly documentary series -- with live discussions -- suddenly finds itself with neither auditorium nor sponsor

By most measures, the public-affairs television show Homefront seems a success. Debuting this past May on Pittsburgh Community Television (PCTV-21), the locally produced series screened a documentary film on a controversial topic, then opened up discussion to a panel of experts and a live audience. At the time it completed the six monthly episodes of its first season, Homefront was airing not just on PCTV, but had been picked up by other local cable providers, by Free Speech TV on The Dish satellite network, and by public-access cable and public-TV stations in cities including Atlanta, Berkeley, Syracuse and Orange County, Calif.


But now Homefront faces an uncertain future: It's lost two of its principal sponsors and the auditorium where it taped its shows. And producer Jerry Starr still isn't sure why.


The show's backing began unraveling after the Oct. 21 taping of what Starr says was the most successful program yet, a hate-crimes-themed show featuring the award-winning documentary Two Towns of Jasper. Shortly thereafter, citing scheduling constraints, Robert Morris University instructor Jim Seguin told Starr that his Center for Documentary Study and Production would no longer provide student crew and equipment for taping the show. Then, in early December, Andy Warhol Museum Executive Director Tom Sokolowski told Starr the museum was withdrawing its support, including free use of its auditorium and partial staffing of the events. That leaves Homefront, should it choose to schedule a second season, with nowhere to call home.


Seguin had kind words for Homefront: Starr, he says, "had good documentaries and nice panels." But he says that with Robert Morris running its own student cable channel from its Moon campus seven nights a week, "It just got too complicated to work with." Sokolowski, meanwhile, says that with tighter budgets, Homefront -- which cost the Warhol more than $3,000 for crew over six shows -- was deemed to fall outside the museum's core mission.


Starr is skeptical. The veteran media activist -- who launched Homefront to fill a perceived void in hard-hitting local public affairs programming -- says he doubts one monthly taping strained the university that much. As to mission, he cites Sokolowski's statement dating from Homefront's inception: "A program like this fits the community outreach mission of the Warhol perfectly," Sokolowski said in May.


While featuring panelists of diverse opinion, Homefront typically tackled issues from a left perspective, with documentaries probing media consolidation, the Patriot Act and the history of U.S. involvement in Iraq. Starr speculates that the show's content might have scared off backers. "We delivered a quality program that was well attended, well received and nationally distributed. At the end [Sokolowski] cited financial [constraints], but I offered to cover his costs," says Starr. "Perhaps political pressure was brought to bear on him.


"The fact that Robert Morris University requested that their name be removed from the program credits suggests further to me that the show has been too controversial to some," adds Starr.


Seguin says controversy was not a factor in his decision: "Nobody said a word about that." And Sokolowski says, "We've done and will continue to do things that are far more controversial than anything [Starr] did."


Homefront retains the support of PCTV, which will continue to air the show from 9-11 p.m. Saturdays and provide technical assistance. (Adelphia cable runs it on alternate Tuesdays.) Meanwhile, Starr is regrouping: One, to ascertain whether the show should mount a second season, he's working with the Thomas Merton Center to solicit input from local social-service groups who might suggest topics and help promote the show. Two, he's looking for a new auditorium.


Jerry  Starr: 412-341-1967.

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