Coming soon! New television drama starring Bay State lawmakers
A new show is coming to Massachusetts television this spring, but producers of daytime favorites such as ''Days of Our Lives,'' ''Guiding Light,'' and ''As the World Turns'' have little to fear from the new competition.
The new program, bound to include some dramatic scenes, will star the state's House of Representatives.
But it is questionable whether daily gavel-to-gavel coverage of lawmaking proceedings will either inform or entertain viewers across the commonwealth.
While the House membership must be applauded for this move to let the public see legislators at work, the scheduled coverage is a far cry from what is needed to present a true picture of what is really going on.
For reasons more political than practical, TV cameras will be restricted to focusing on the rostrum and the podium, where much of the debate takes place. Out of viewing range will be the portion of the chamber where the members sit.
In this way, those who are watching back home will not see the substantial number of empty seats. Nor will they see that few of the representatives present are paying attention to what is being said.
Thus, many a lawmaker is spared embarrassment or the need to explain to constituents why he or she was among the missing, chatting with a colleague, or perhaps even dozing while an important issue was being discussed.
The new setup, which might be called ''As Beacon Hill Turns,'' will also include coverage from three other State House locations, including Gardner Auditorium where most committee hearings of controversial issues are conducted.
However, broadcast of such sessions could be rare since most lawmaking panels are joint House-Senate committees, and there is no provision for Senate involvement. Presumably this could be worked out between the two lawmaking branches.
A proposed Senate rules change to provide for some measure of television coverage has been recommended by a special committee, but there has been no movement in that direction. Should the House gavel-to-gavel televising prove something state representatives can live with comfortably, the Senate eventually may follow suit.
Under its contract with the House, public television's WGBH Inc. is to be paid $254,742 for the final months of this fiscal year (which ends June 30) and (Channel 44), the sister station of Boston's WGBH, Channel 2. In addition, $1.2 million has been appropriated by the House for purchase of the TV cameras, special lighting, new microphones for each representative's desk, and a new control center from which the live coverage will be beamed to the station's transmitter.
Although lawmakers on the floor will not be seen, the microphones will pick up their questions and debate to be included in the audio portion of the television coverage. No provision is made for any commentary, either by a Channel 44 staff member or legislative employee. Therefore, the coverage could be confusing at times, leaving many viewers bewildered about what is really happening.
Ideally, some type of explanation will be provided. Otherwise, the House coverage may prove to be a waste of valuable television time and taxpayer dollars. The best arrangement would be to have any such explanation handled by someone completely detached from the legislature.
A far better arrangement might be to open up the House doors to cameras from all stations, perhaps on a pool coverage basis, whenever there is something of broad public interest on the agenda.
That is the procedure in some states. In others, employees of the legislature film certain portions of the proceedings; the film (as-is or an edited version) is available to individual commercial or public television stations.
The ongoing coverage, live and direct, is preferable to the latter alternative, and would be even more so if the cameras were allowed to show the way things really are.
Except when matters of vast public interest are being debated, it is hard to imagine viewers tuning in House sessions, some of which last for hours, even to the ''edge of night.''
A conspicuous lack of colorful lawmakers also contributes to what may be hours of dull proceedings. Legislators with a flair for style and oration could provide some amusement, and in the process might even shed a little light on the subject at hand.
This is not to suggest that lawmaking should become show business. But the House member most prone to injecting a bit of levity into the proceedings - Rep. George Keverian (D) of Everett - may have few opportunities to do so. The Harvard College-educated, jovial lawmaker lost his leadership post last fall, demoted by House Speaker Thomas W. McGee (D) of Lynn after announcing his intentions to challenge the speaker for the House gavel in 1985.
Ironically, Mr. Keverian headed the special McGee-appointed House committee to work out arrangements for gavel-to-gavel coverage.
Clearly the original intent was simply to open the doors to the cameras whenever desired. Instead, the commonwealth will have the more grandiose setup, which also involves the hiring of Bill Harrington (former Channel 5 reporter) as special consultant. He has been earning about $3,000 a month as the ''guiding light'' in the lawmakers' television debut.