TV and the Squeaky Wheels

Have you seen the Los Angeles City Council on television?

Probably not. It's a pretty dull show. The subject matter is usually arcane. You don't see Bob Farrell talking on the telephone at the side of the room or Zev Yaroslavsky, over by the press area, trying to charm the reporters.

There are no shots of the lobbyists in the audience, no text on the screen to identify the land developers, dump operators and other businesses they represent. Or to show their campaign contributions to council members.

Nor do the cameras give you the drama behind the drama. You may see the outrage level slowly rise as a homeowner testifies before the council, but you don't see what's making the homeowner so mad. It's the inattentiveness of the council, Joel Wachs signing papers or Richard Alatorre reading the newspapers.

But with all the flaws, the fact that the council meetings are televised is important. In a society increasingly apathetic about politics, power is going to the squeaky wheels. And the people who watch televised legislative meetings are definitely wheels that squeak.

The first politician of note to discover that was a once-obscure Georgia political science professor, Newt Gingrich, who was elected to Congress in 1978.

In the mid-1980s, Gingrich and a small group of fellow Republican conservatives decided to deliver their message on C-Span, the cable television network that carries House sessions gavel to gavel. Their efforts were derided by those who said that nobody watched C-Span. Tip O'Neill, then the Democratic speaker, tried to quash them by having the cameras pan the House during their speeches at the end of the session, showing the empty chamber.

It didn't matter. What was important was the message Gingrich and the others were delivering--and the audience watching it.

The audience is surprisingly big. A 1987 C-Span survey showed that 32 million homes in the nation received the service. People in almost 11 million of those homes actually watched C-Span. Most watched about 9 hours a month. But a certain breed, a newcomer to the American political landscape known as a C-Span Junkie, viewed the network 20 hours a month or more.

Most important for Gingrich was the nature of the audience. They were interested in politics. They were more likely than non-C-Span viewers to vote, to contribute to political campaigns and to complain to public officials. In 1988, 78% of C-Span viewers voted, compared to 50% for the rest of the nation.

Today, there are about 120 California communities where meetings of city councils and boards of supervisors are televised, using channels set aside by cable companies.

Thousand Oaks is one example. In this suburban Ventura County community along the fast-growing Ventura Freeway corridor, council meetings have been televised since 1987. "We've become television personalities," said Mayor Alex Fiore. "At the market, people come up and say, 'Alex, I saw you on television.' "

The city's annual Conejo Valley Attitude Survey, a questionnaire mailed to 9,000 homes, indicated that Fiore's anecdotal evidence really means something. Of the 3,334 households that replied, 42% said they occasionally watched council meetings and 5% said they always watched.

Some think the next step should be to televise the state Legislature. A group headed by Professor Tracy Westen of the USC Annenberg School of Communications has proposed a California Channel to do just that.

All this is bound to change the way people think of their elected officials.

City council members have been one-dimensional figures, names in the newspapers or brief images on local television news programs. When I say Ernani Bernardi, you may know the name, and that he's a Los Angeles city councilman. But you have no sense of the man. Bernardi, who has been on the council longer than anyone else, understands that. That's why he hosts a weekly television show with reporters on the cable system in his San Fernando Valley district.

The show makes him more than a name in the papers. He's wise old Ernie Bernardi, guiding the reporters' discussions, cutting them off when they get boring. Like Mayor Alex Fiore of Thousand Oaks or once-obscure Newt Gingrich of Georgia, Ernie Bernardi is a television personality.

Final note: Don't be put off by the dullness of city council sessions. What's important is that city councils are now accessible to many persons with cable TV. Most city councils meet at night. Los Angeles sessions begin at 10 a.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Friday--with sessions replayed on Channel 35 at 6 p.m. You, too, can be a squeaky wheel.

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