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'Hey, didn't I see you on TV?' (public access cable television)

Want to reach your constituents your own way? Get on public access TV.

Frustrated by the sound-bite superficiality of modern political discourse, a handful of state legislators control their own communications, bypass the media and broadcast directly into the coziness of their constituents' living rooms. They do it by using public access cable television, offered when municipalities force cable companies to set aside publicly accessible cable channels as a franchise condition.

Anything goes on public access cable television, including a legislator hosting a talk show. Only minimal rules govern those broadcasts in Oregon, says Michael Kesten, House Democratic media director for the Legislative Assembly. Rule one: You can't solicit money. Rule two: You can't take off your clothes.

Rosa Leonardi, community development director for Salem's Community Cable TV (CCTV) adds just two others: You can't violate a copyright, and you can't defame anyone. Public access is a "forum for the people's electronic First Amendment rights," says Leonardi. The station does not initiate any programming, but simply airs whatever independent amateur producers develop. Nor do public access channels restrict the amount, type or content of political programming.

Now, legislators form districts in Oregon and elsewhere in the United States with public access cable TV can have unedited, unmediated air-time. Nowhere but in America do politicians have such easy access to the pre-eminent political tool of this century--television.

State legislators in Connecticut, Iowa and Oregon have taken advantage of the free air time offered by public access cable channels. Senator Al Sturgeon of Sioux City, Iowa, co-hosted a talk show for several years with a professor of political science. In Connecticut, former Senate Majority Leader Con O'Leary hosted a 30-minute, live call-in show each month. In Oregon, seven legislators broadcast monthly programs on public access cable in their home districts. Senator Bill Kennemer and Representatives Gail Shibley, Peter Courtney, Nancy Person, Dave McTeague, Beverly Stein and Kevin Mannix star in their own public affairs shows.

Because most shows are taped at public access cable studios, the lighting and camera work are less than professional. To improve production quality, Kesten inexpensively produces the Oregon Democratic programs at a small studio in Salem called Allied Video Productions. To produce his shows, Oregon Senator Kennemer uses the studio of a local cable TV company. Once taped, the programs are distributed to public access channels in the legislators' home districts.

Why do they do it? Reasons vary, but most mentioned the ability to control one's own message, the educational value of public affairs programming and the sheer fun of being on television.

Being confined to a sound-bite or a few column inches frustrated Senator Al Sturgeon. Similarly, Representative Mannix says, "the best part is we avoid glitzy sound bites."

Senator Kennemer was looking for a forum to express his opinions. "I've been a Republican in a highly Democratic Senate. It's been difficult for me to make the contribution I've wanted--this was my opportunity to have an impact." However, Kennemer insists his show is not partisan. "That would destroy the credibility of the program," he says.

Legislators also mentioned the satisfaction derived from raising the level of public discourse in their home districts. "Part of a legislator's job is to educate," says Representative Stein, who hosts her own monthly public access show The Radical Middle. Typically, public officials, other legislators and political or community activists appear as guests on these shows. For example, Representative Stein hosted a member of a public employees union and the head of a national congress for community and economic development. Representative Mannix hosted Chief Clerk of the House Ramona Kenady, the state superintendent of public instruction and the speaker of the House. He compares his show to "arranging a coffee meeting just to get to know someone."

Not every show is serious, however. Representative Courtney emphasizes his love of educating in an entertaining way, and describes his show as "riotous fun." Senator Kennemer uses his old kitchen table from home as a set, and says with a laugh, "We try not to look too hickish." Though made by relative amateurs, these shows are no Wayne's World of the legislatures. For the most part, they provide serious discussions about issues of consequence to constituents. Kesten believes they are the "modern equivalent of the town hall meeting." Viewership, however, is probably limited to the occasional "channel grazer" or the politically committed.

"I don't kid myself," says Representative Mannix, "On Tuesday night people aren't going to say, 'My God, Kevin's on TV tonight and I've got to watch it!'"

Nonetheless, several legislators mentioned loyal viewers approaching them with positive comments. Senator Kennemer says, "Lots of times I go places and people stare at me and say, 'I know you, you're on TV aren't you?'"
COPYRIGHT 1993 National Conference of State Legislatures
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Renstrom, Mary
Publication:State Legislatures
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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