First there was Tip O'Neill and the U.S. House of Representatives. Then there was Ted Turner, a.k.a. Captain Outrageous, and his 'round-the-clock Cable News Network that took viewers into parliaments all over the world.
And now -- bring up the klieg lights, please -- comes O.U. Johansen, chairman of the Arlington County School Board, his four colleagues and the superintendent of schools, blazing across 18,000 Arlington television screens in living black and white.
Oh, how it must have warmed the hearts of the school children, whose formative years these people help mold, to watch the prime-time debut of the Arlington School Board on Metrocable Channel 30 last week. Or, perhaps more accurately, the school children who weren't watching Family Feud, M*A*S*H, Tic Tac Dough, P.M. Magizine, Sanford & Son, the all-sports network or even, improbably, MacNeil-Lehrer. (Or maybe they were doing their homework instead?)
For reasons known only to the A. C. Nielson Co., the granddaddy of television rating firms, Nielson declined to say how many viewers Johansen & Company attracted as Superintendent Larry Cuban suspensefully unveiled hisproposed $59.8 million fiscal 1982 budget, building dramtically to the recommended 10 percent pay increase for teachers. It was sheer theater, unmarred by commercial interruptions.
It was also one of the shortest school board meetings on record -- less than 90 minutes -- and was attended by one of the smallest audiences -- about 20 persons, almost half of whom were employes of Metrocable, the Arlington cable franchiser, which plans to broadcast only "key" school board meetings for now.
"I've never seen so few people at a school board meeting," said board member Evelyn Reid Syphax. "Maybe they're all at home watching us."
Before the meeting, school officials, Metrocable representatives and invited guests gathered in a room adjacent to the board's meeting room for an opening night party of grapes, cheese, pate and ginger ale.
Surrounding them was all the paraphernalia of a television station control room: decks of television monitors showing on-air and upcoming shots, yards and yards of cable and one of four minicams that would record the historical event.
Ray Vanderbuilt, the school system's telecommunications coordinator, dashed around the room making last-minute checks with the students operating the machines. "I intended to tell (school officials) not to wear black and white because it doesn't show up well with the white background and the black chairs in the (board) room, but it slipped through the cracks," Vanderbuilt said. No matter, no one wore the offending colors.
"This is the best part of the board meeting," cracked one guest, a veteran meeting-goer.
For another guest, Country Board member Walter Frankland, this was old hat. The County Board's first meeting this year was cable-cast.
"Have you seen the rerun? Unfortunately, I did," Frankland joked.
Simone (Sim) J. Pace, who is expected to succeed school board member Ann C. Broder in July, also had watched the County Board meeting. "It was enough to put you to sleep if you didn't know the people or weren't interested in the subjects," Pace observed. Still, Pace was waiting in the audience as the lights went up.
"Of all the nights to televise, this has got to be the worst, the driest meeting in the world," said school board member Claude Hilton, referring to the fact that the budget dominated the agenda. "I think my wife Joretta is going to watch. At least she said she would. But my son's going to a basketball game and my daughter is doing something else."
At the home of Ann Broder, who was active in bringing cable to the county, no one would be watching. The Broders live in an area that does not have cable access because utility lines are underground and cable has been strung along aboveground utility poles so far. "I'm resentful of that," she said.
As the cast started filing into the meeting room, board member Torill B. Floyd remarked, "I just try to think of this as another board meeting, althogh it does put us a little more on the spot."
Just before the on-the-air switch was puled, just as the klieg lights brightened and the man with the portable boom jockeyed for a better position, the board heard from Tom Richards, president of ARTEC, which operates Metrocable.
"When you televise public bodies, their decorum often improves, not that the decorum of this board needs to be improved," he said, adding a warning, "You'll also find that people addressing the board become a little more long-winded."
Not so on opening night. There were no "Hi, Moms" or citizens loaded down with gargantuan charts detailing the advisability of having the school bus stop in front of their house instead of the Jonses'. It was, well, rather subdued, staid. Just what you'd expect at a school board meeting.
Freddie Silverman, sleep well.