No more naps and feet on the desk when TV looks on state legislatures
Boston — American legislators, some of whom used to put their feet on their desks, now are putting their best foot forward -- on television. Electronic cameras have moved into hearing rooms and lawmaking chambers with increasing frequency.
The intent is not to make TV stars out of politicians but to bring viewers, who might never visit Congress or their state capitol, closer to the lawmaking scene.
All but a handful of states now allow at least modest television coverage of legislative proceedings. The US House of Representatives similarly has opened up its sessions. And if Senate majority leader howard H. Baker has his way, floor action within his chamber will be televised on a regular basis.
Not all legislators are pleased with the increased exposure. But those close to the scene say coverage is affecting media-wise lawmakers, who are scheduling key debates durring television's prime viewing hours, improving decorum and sharpening their debates.
"Everybody's on his toes and usually better prepared," is how one veteran Florida legislative observer puts it.
Coverage varies widely from state to state both in scope and extent -- ranging from gavel-to-gavel floor debate to limited out-of-chamber sessions such as caucuses and committee hearings.
At least 52 of the nation's 99 state legislative bodies -- 32 senates and 30 houses of representatives -- permit TV coverage on fairly frequent occasions, if not regularly.
Coverage from spectator galleries is allowed by 35 state senates and 36 houses, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
States where taped segments or live legislative floor action is provided on a fairly regular basis include Alaska, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Dakota , Washington, and West Virginia.
Only a small fraction of the legislative goings-on, however, are presented for home viewing even by public television stations, which usually have more time in their programming schedule for such coverage than commercial channels.
Except on special occasions, such as a governor's inaugural message, proceedings are not broadcast live, but taped and edited for use later in the day or week. Some states, however, offer full and continuing coverage over a closed-circuit hookup in offices throughout their capitols.
In Florida, for example, the presiding officer in each legislative chamber has a tiny screen at the rostrum by which he has instant access to what is going on in the other legislative branch. With the flick of a switch the governor, too, can keep tabs on debate without leaving his office.
Highlights of the day's debate and other major developments are beamed via satellite on nine public television stations around the state in a nightly, hour-long program. "Today in the Legislature," now in its ninth year, has one of the largest audiences in the state although it may never attract more viewers than the "Johnny Carson Show" or "Sixty Minutes".
The effort is not to cater to individual lawmakers but rather to tell as complete a story of what is happening, explains Harold Baker, executive director of Florida Public Television.
"We have total control over the content," he explains, noting that in the five years he has been associated with the entirely legislature-funded operation "only one legislator has complained about the coverage." That lawmaker, whom he declined to identify, was concerned over not getting enough attention.
Similar nightly programs zeroing in on lawmaking proceedings are presented in at least 10 other states during legislative sittings.
Weekly, hour-long or half-hour programs devoted substantially and in some instances entirely to legislative happenings, including interviews with decisionmakers, segments of debate, and analysis, are available to viewers in 11 other states.
Most are generally on a smaller scale than in Florida, where coverage involves a 38-member team of reporters, editors, producers, and technicians.
Although no two formats are the same, most are of the news magazine type. They offer a blend of state lawmaker activity and issue-oriented discussions involving various state agencies.
Legislative coverage on TV is considered particularly outstanding both on terms of extent and treatment in Connecticut, New York, and Pennsylvania, as well as Florida.
"Prime Time," the nightly public television news program now carried by five stations in the Nutmeg State, devotes considerable time showing what the legislature is doing. In addition "the People's Business," a half-hour weekly presentation, provides viewers with edited film of major lawmaking activities coupled with background information and interpretation.
As in most other states where substantial TV access to lawmaking proceedings is permitted, program producers are free to cover what they choose without political interference.
With the increased possibility of television coverage, Connecticut legislative leaders have tended to schedule key debates during prime time.
Instead of the usual news magazine format the coverage in some states is confined largely to lawmaker interviews and debates involving those on both sides of current legislative issues. In Mississippi, for example, two state senators and two representatives are questioned on predetermined topics by a reporter, with at least half of the hour-long weekly program open for call-in questions from viewers.
The cost of in-depth legislative coverage in most states is borne by local public television stations, although sometimes supplemented by direct the state appropriations or private contributions.
One notable exception is in New York. "Inside Albany," the Empire State's prime public television coverage of legislative happenings, is underwritten 75 percent by commercial interests.