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SENATORS ANSWER TV ROLE CALL

Senators, start your engines.

All that revving up was not the Indianapolis 500. It was Monday’s inaugural national telecast of the Capitol Hill 100, as C-SPAN showed the U.S. Senate in perpetual oratory.

Finally, coast to coast, the tongueing of America.

The enormously valuable C-SPAN (for Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network), a nonprofit cable operation, has been televising House proceedings for seven years with hardly a fuss. And now, holy hoopla, comes the much-advertised six-week test to televise the Senate via a second channel, called C-SPAN II. If there can be Rockys I-IV, there can be more than one C-SPAN.

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Senatecasts could include more than gavel-to-gavel coverage. They could include televising special Senate committee hearings. Viewers of C-SPAN II could see the Senate in action . . . or inaction.

Pros sparred with cons.

Some said televising the Senate would be a great education for America and was the democratic thing to do. Others predicted that it would unfairly make or break Senate careers. Still others feared that it would encourage scores of windy Claghorns to posture floridly and mug for the camera in hair dye and makeup and telegenic wardrobes.

Would senators start making deals for apparel endorsements? Would they become walking billboards and wear advertising patches on their suits a la professional tennis players? Would they use those six cameras in the balcony of the Senate chamber to politic and impress the voters back home?

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Would Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) and Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.) wear hats to cover their hair transplants? Would such presidential hopefuls as Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.) and Majority Leader Robert Dole (R-Kan.) use C-SPAN II to campaign for the White House?

Monday came and went, however, and no bells, no tap dances, no Hula-Hoops, no hats, no circus. Not very much excitement, either.

“It was a fairly typical day,” C-SPAN Chairman Brian Lamb said by phone from Washington. “I just don’t think that all this talk about Hollywood on the Potomac has any merit. Senators already get all the attention they want.”

Now, however, their Senate remarks can be captured in a 30-second sound bite for the evening news.

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The cameras didn’t go unnoticed inside the Senate chamber. Every politician’s head has a built-in Nielsen meter. So on came a procession of senators who felt obliged to declare that they would not be affected by the presence of TV, something they would not have bothered to mention except for the presence of TV.

Proxmire used visual aids--a chart and a dollar bill--to make a fiscal point. Sounding like Uncle Piggly Wiggly, Sen. Howell Heflin (D-Ala.) read his folksy sonnet about the new TV coverage:

Turn the spotlight over here,

Focus the camera at my place,

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Pages please don’t come too near,

Otherwise you just might block my face.

That great comedian Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio) said that senators “have had meetings” about how to hold a mike and how to hold their heads for the camera. Glenn then produced a makeup brush and pretended to remove the shine from his forehead. Then he produced a compact and smoothed back his sparse hair. His colleagues thought he was so funny that they collapsed in side-splitting silence.

Glenn’s performance proved that he wasn’t elected because of his incisive wit. Nor were California’s joking senators. Republican Pete Wilson threw out a rousing clunker about the crush of junk mail sent out by senators, and Democrat Alan Cranston wasn’t even funny when he tried to be funny about senators who try to be funny.

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What was funny, though, was all the speculation about the impact of C-SPAN II, as if the nation’s viewers were going to forsake “Ryan’s Hope” or “Super Password” or “The Young and the Restless” for a suspenseful vote on technical and clarifying amendments.

Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W. Va.) spoke Monday of a potential audience of 240 million for the Senate telecasts. He wasn’t even close. If senators are thinking of using C-SPAN II to showboat or stump for state or national office, they’d better think again. The audience is too small.

Although Monday’s debut was carried on regular C-SPAN because the House was not in session (the proceedings also were shown on PBS), the Senate telecasts are now available only on that second C-SPAN channel. And although C-SPAN II is free to local cable systems, initial signups have been slow.

C-SPAN II signees to date are cable operators totaling only 7 million subscriptions, which are less than a third of regular C-SPAN households. And there’s no telling how many--or how few--of those 7 million will be tuned to C-SPAN II at any given time.

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When I called my local cable system to ask about carrying C-SPAN II, the woman on the other end of the line reacted as if I had asked her to remove her clothes. She said, icily: “We’re showing all we’re going to show.”

Those six Senate cameras are not showing all they can show. Viewers of C-SPAN II get little sense of who is present and who is not, for example. That’s because the Senate--perhaps recalling the anger of some House members when the House camera was first allowed to pull back for embarrassing long shots that revealed a near-empty chamber--agreed not to televise its lengthy quorum calls. Instead, Senate viewers see a printed message explaining the purpose of a quorum call.

A lesson in civics--and politics.

SKIN GAME. NBC’s coverage of the French Open in Paris last weekend shows that it is still trying to draw tennis nerds to tennis telecasts. Dick Enberg and Bud Collins do fine as announcers, but NBC likes to deploy features in the middle of matches, apparently to whet the interest of viewers who prefer seeing Paris to passing shots.

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The weekday live coverage of the ESPN cable network, however, has been exceptional. That’s largely because of excellent commentary by Jim Simpson, Fred Stolle, Virginia Wade (replacing the even better Mary Carillo, who has joined the USA network) and Cliff Drysdale, TV’s best tennis announcer.

But check out the sexist camera work provided by French TV. The coverage was straight for men’s matches. Monday’s Steffi Graf-Hana Mandlikova match, though, was marred by numerous closeups of the players’ thighs and shots of the court from between their legs. What does that have to do with tennis?


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