Their ripostes lack the ring of "Agronsky & Co.," and their subjects lack the prestige of "Washington Week in Review." Nonetheless, "Five on 10," Alexandria cable TV's own weekly public affairs show, has all the traditional sounds of aggravated argument.
"Let's talk about something we DO know the figures for," suggests moderator David Speck, after a discussion on the city's housing authority deteriorates into impassioned nonsequiturs.
For 30 minutes each Thursday night on Colonial 10, Alexandria's local access cable channel, the armchair quarterbacking of Alexandria civic affairs goes on, part of the city's slowly expanding and much ballyhooed cable TV programming.
Speck, a former Republican delegate and Alexandria stockbroker, dreamed up the idea this fall, and recruited the show's regulars, with an eye toward inciting controversy. His cohorts include four once and maybe future politicians and party regulars and a representative from the local chapter of the League of Women Voters.
Controversy has been slow to build. "It's still a little too gentlemanly," says Speck. "We're working on it. This is your basic low-budget operation."
It's low-budget, and is not an income-producing show. There are no advertisements. There are two cameras and six lights, and it's all recorded on a 30-minute video tape that costs $18 and gets recycled, leaving little of "Five on 10" for posterity.
"We're still fighting over the set," says local Republican party chief and Washington parking magnate George Cook. "I wanted a table and coffee mugs, a la Carson."
The "Five on 10" regulars say they have no way to gauge the size of their audience. How many people watch? "Well," jokes Cook, "last week one of my children was home, so that made seven."
"We don't have the foggiest idea," says Speck.
They are not alone. Though cable companies have touted local programming as the next best thing to caviar in the course of franchise battles over the last few years, local programming is still too new for anyone to have any idea how many local program channels there are on the nation's 4,000-plus cable systems. Nor are there statistics on hours or type of programming, and no idea of audience size.
The National Federation of Local Cable Programmers estimates there are 2,000 local programming cable channels nationwide, but says that is sketchy. It's hard to know who you are reaching, or if you are reaching anyone, says a spokesman at the National Telecommunications Information Administration. The favorite anecdote at cable conventions, he says, is the one about the cable channel that had problems with its local channel transmission and turned its camera on a studio aquarium for several days while the problem was being fixed. It was only when regular transmission resumed that the station heard from dozens of viewers, all of whom wanted to know "What happened to the fish?"
Alexandria offers its 15,000 cable TV subscribers more than six hours of local programming each night, shows that include "Commission on Aging Seminars" and "The Real Estate Show." City officials say the programs may not dazzle the Nielsen ratings, but they are pleased nonetheless with their bit of Burbank.
"It's Alexandria people talking about Alexandria, and that was what cable was supposed to be about," says Alexandria cable administrator Michele Evans.
The wishes of its host aside, "Five on 10" regulars still discuss city business with the relaxed good humor of old boys sitting around Old Town's Market Square.
"Here, try these," said former Democratic vice mayor Mel Bergheim, passing a pair of eyeglasses to Republican Cook before the cameras rolled on a recent night. "Holding something always makes me feel more relaxed."
"We spent a lot of time this summer trying to make sure we had balance," says Speck. "We may have overdone it."
The Federal Communications Commission no longer requires cable companies to provide local programming or public access channels, but competing cable companies have held out local programming as a bargaining tool, with varying results. Even if the cable company delivers fully on its promises, cable executives say local programming won't succeed unless the subscribers want it.
Reston has had substantial local programming for years, cable officials say, as has Gaithersburg. Arlington's cable system, say county officials, has taken a less active role in local programming, with less speedy results. Significant amounts of local programming were begun this year after the county's franchise agreement was rewritten to include more specific local programming provisions. Fairfax County's cable system was awarded its franchise under an arrangement that provides $500,000 in cable funds for local programming, but the county will leave a substantial part of responsibility for dreaming up TV shows with the community.
Despite the efforts of many local governments to have local access programming, Henry Geller, director of the National Telecommunications Information Administration in the Carter administration, says "local programming hasn't clicked yet. Local programming has to compete against the networks and HBO."
People still turn on TV for entertainment, Geller says, and local cable shows are still dominated by "talking heads."
"That doesn't mean its not important. It just means its not impressive," says Geller. Exceptions exist, notably notably Spokane, Wash., Reading, Pa., and Prince William County's Dale City, but by and large, he says, the golden age of local programming has yet to arrive.