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Senate TV - no threat to `Cosby'. But approval is general after a year of gavel-to-gavel coverage

By Peter OsterlundStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 3, 1987



Washington

On the TV screen a late middle-aged man stands behind a quaint old mahagony desk. He turns to another late middle-aged man standing at an identically quaint old mahogany desk and inquires: ``Would the distinguished Republican leader be in a position to indicate to me as to whether or not he could give consent to proceed to the Defense Department Authorization Bill?'' The other man responds: ``I will say to the majority leader I am not ready to do that at this time.'' To which the first man replies: ``I thank the Republican leader.''

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A broader camera view shows the United States Senate chamber to be full of quaint - and empty - mahogany desks.

The two men confer quietly, then saunter off the floor, while someone drones through a list of the names of all 100 senators. The TV screen flashes a message: ``The Senate is Conducting a Quorum Call.''

Cable television viewers across the country have been treated to another drama-packed episode in the life of the Senate.

For the past year, the Senate has gone head-to-head with ``Days of Our Lives'' and anything else the networks might offer, and lost. Gavel-to-gavel TV coverage of Senate proceedings has hardly set the broadcast industry on its ear.

But winning the ratings game was never the point. Advocates claimed that televising Senate proceedings was logical in a popular democracy - a way to bring the national legislature into people's living rooms. Besides, they argued, the House of Representatives had been broadcasting its proceedings since 1979, and the Senate was rapidly fading into video obscurity.

Traditionalists argued that the presence of TV cameras in the Senate would lead to grandstanding on an unprecedented scale, slowing down the already languid pace of legislative business. Others were sure that the Senate would try to match the fast pace of television, and that ``the world's greatest deliberative body'' would lose some of its deliberateness.

After almost a decade of debate, the decision was made, and on June 1, 1986, the television age came to the Senate. The result? Senators ``are making better speeches,'' says majority leader Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia. ``Overall, the debate has improved from a substantive standpoint.''

Sen. J.Bennett Johnston (D) of Louisiana, who opposed the idea last year, has changed his mind: ``I think it has worked well. Some of the fears I and others had have not materialized.''

But most of the 21 senators who voted against TV last year say they would do it again. ``Longer speeches [and] grandstanding were reasons why I voted against Senate TV,'' harrumphs Sen. Quentin Burdick (D) of North Dakota. ``It seems my fears were well founded.''

Others say TV hasn't made any difference at all. Sen. William Proxmire, a consistent opponent of Senate TV, says his office receives 1,000 letters a day. ``Not one of them has mentioned my appearances on Senate TV, and I give a speech on the floor every day,'' he says. ``Nobody watches.''

C-SPAN, the cable-TV cooperative that pipes complete Senate and House floor proceedings into people's homes, has no figures on how many people watch its programs.

But its Senate coverage is available to 9 million cable subscribers, and clips from the floor are much used by television news organizations.

Meanwhile, after an initial bout of video self-consciousness, television seems to have become part of the Senate routine. It's here to stay, virtually all agree.