California Gets Its `GTV' As Governor Hits Airwaves

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

IT'S the Perot-ization of American politics, with a new twist.

"People say to me, `Governor, don't raise my taxes, ... and don't cut my services,' " says Gov. Pete Wilson (R) of California, standing in front of an easel full of pie charts, statistics, and bar graphs.

"So I ask them: You don't want to cut education?" "No!"

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"You don't want to cut public safety and let dangerous criminals out of prison?" "Of course not!"

"And you don't want to cut health and welfare?" "Not much."

"Well then, that leaves us only about 9 percent of the whole state general fund from which to make cuts that you might accept ... and that's just not possible when state government is just like the family which has suffered a loss of one-third of its entire income."

Minus the backup dancers, glitzy editing, and driving music, the chief executive of the nation's largest state has stolen a step from MTV. And though he is unabashedly copying the "informercial" popularized by Texas billionaire Ross Perot, Mr. Wilson is taking a far cheaper route to get his message directly to the people - via community-access cable television.

Media-watchers say the idea is the wave of the future. In contrast with the high cost of ads on commercial TV, programs on community-access TV cost just a few thousands dollars for production, and nothing at all for airtime. And the viewers may be just the sort of grass-roots activists that politicians are looking for.

"The people who watch community-access channels tend to be the local movers and shakers, joiners and doers," says Brian Stonehill, who directs the Media Studies Program at Pomona College in Pomona, Calif. "The channels are usually starved for programming and you tend to hit the people who like to be politically involved."

"Politicians are beginning to tap into the willingness of people to be educated to complicated public issues," adds Garth Jowett, a professor of communications at the University of Houston. "You are going to see a burgeoning revolution in the way politicians use technology as a surrogate for showing up at the local mall."

The Wilson video was prompted by the governor's continuing efforts to placate an electorate angry about three years of record-breaking budget shortfalls. Dan Schnur, the governor's press secretary, says Wilson has long been looking for new ways to make his messages heard more widely. "There is no statewide media in California," Mr. Schnur says. "The governor could be on Page 1 of the Sacramento Bee every day for a week and not be heard in Los Angeles. Or he could be on nightly news all over San Diego and

not be seen in San Francisco."

Hence the idea for the community-access video. With one eye on the Perot model, Wilson set up a noncampaign committee to solicit contributions to pay the cost of the program.

In the video, produced live in April, Wilson is shown in a town hall-style forum, talking with business owners and then discussing the budget crisis in detail. Since the video is intended as a nonpartisan, educational effort, Wilson avoids taking pot-shots at the Democratic-controlled Legislature, although he does tout his own ideas for solving the state's problems.

Of about 360 cable systems statewide, 80 to 100 so far have picked up the governor's 28-minute "explain-a-cast." Some air it on a regular basis. Besides cable companies, which copy the video from scheduled airings by satellite, the tape has been distributed to local chambers of commerce, civic and rotary associations, and some libraries and schools.

The cable companies have no way to quantify viewership, but Schnur estimates the audience so far at about 3 million. "The video has been successful well beyond expectations," Schnur says, adding that several more are planned.

PATTY KEEGAN, a spokeswoman for the California Cable Broadcasters Association, confirms that interest is high and that the video has been well received by cable operators. "The companies are always in the position of needing good public service programming," she says. "If it serves the purpose of education, all the better."

The broadcast has gotten good reviews from some ordinary viewers. "I thought it was boring but instructional," says Vicky Morrow, who subscribes to Sammons Cable Company in Burbank, Calif. "It is clearer to me now what the problems are and what the trade-offs are."

But Democrats pan it. "The governor's video is educational, but it subtly asks viewers to accept the state's shortcomings are anything but his own failed policies," says Greg deGiere, a spokesman for state Sen. David Roberti (D) of Los Angeles, the Senate president pro tem.

The Democrats have decided to get even by producing their own "infomercial" and asking cable operators for equal time to air it.

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