Watch out, David Brinkley, and move over, "Agronsky and Co." -- here comes Paul Trible.
In the name of public service, Virginia's junior senator has persuaded eight television stations across the state to air a monthly talk show featuring Trible as host, and produced in the Senate Recording Studio.
Trible said the 30-minute shows allow him to keep his constituents better informed. But skeptics say they are an example of a massive publicity machine on Capitol Hill that helps incumbents stay in office.
The shows are made without cost to Trible, who offers them free to the stations. Trible spokesman John Miller said the Republican Senatorial Committee pays the $100-per-session production charge and for distribution of the tapes. The bargain basement priced shows are produced in a taxpayer subsidized, million-dollar studio in the basement of the Capitol.
Trible is the only member of the Virginia or Maryland congressional delegation who takes advantage of the studio to produce a regular television show. But others, including Rep. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), are watching the reaction to Trible's show. Mikulski aide Jim Abbott said the Baltimore congresswoman is considering a show for cable television.
Miller defended the practice, saying that "the purpose is to give Virginians a firsthand look at the newsmakers and policies that affect their lives."
But the press aide to a Republican House member from Virginia said, "One thing you have to think about is, are you giving a really unfair advantage to incumbents?"
"I'm absolutely floored that stations would run it," said a spokesman for a Democratic congressman from the state. "Think how much the stations charge for campaign ads."
Ralph Griffith, director of the Senate studio, would not reveal how many senators use it for regular shows. Miller said he was told that three or four other senators have regular television shows.
The studio is staffed by 18 employes at a cost to taxpayers of $600,000 annually, according to Larry E. Smith, Senate sergeant-at-arms. The House has a similar studio.
Trible's show reaches most of the state's heavily populated areas, from stations in Richmond, Norfolk, Charlottesville, Roanoke and Lynchburg, but he has been unable to get a commercial station in the Washington area to carry the program. The first one will be shown by noncommercial Channel 56 in Fairfax.
Bob McRaney Jr., vice president and general manager of WWBT, Channel 12 in Norfolk, said his station, an NBC affiliate, is aware of potential problems and plans to review each show before airing it. "The station is very wary about purely political exposure on his behalf," McRaney said.
Meyer Davis, program director for WVEC, Channel 13 in Norfolk, said any show that seems too partisan will not make it on the air. He said the station, an ABC affiliate, believed that the first show steered clear of being overtly political.
"I think they're trying to do a service," Davis said. "And it certainly behooves the station to have a good relationship with their senators . . . Democrats or Republicans, because we are licensed by the FCC Federal Communications Commission ."
Davis added that if Trible becomes a declared candidate, the station will have more problems airing the show. Trible's Senate term ends in 1988.
On the first show, Trible interviewed Howard H. Baker Jr., the former Senate majority leader and potential Republican presidential candidate. Baker reflected on the Senate and on the presidential political process, as Trible interspersed his questions with personal comments.
The show opens with a sunrise over the Shenandoah Valley, then flashes to other scenes of Virginia, including the Chesapeake Bay, Williamsburg, coal mines and tobacco fields. In the background, Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man" swells as a voice talks about the Virginia of tradition and the Virginia of the future.
Several area members of Congress have weekly or biweekly radio shows, usually lasting five minutes. They include Reps. Dan Daniel (D-Va.), James R. Olin (D-Va.), Thomas J. Bliley Jr. (R-Va.) and Roy Dyson (D-Md.). In addition, Rep. J. French Slaughter (R-Va.) makes two or three one-minute radio spots a week for the two dozen radio stations in his district.
House members pay the studio $1.50 for a five-minute tape and 60 cents for additional tape. Most congressional offices pay for the radio spots out of official office accounts.
Some senators have found that television shows are not worth the effort. Sen. Paula Hawkins (R-Fla.) had trouble scheduling interesting guests and dropped the idea after doing two shows earlier this year.
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) had a similar scheduling program and switched from the guest format used by Trible to one in which local reporters question him and Sen. John Heinz (R-Pa.). A Specter aide noted that sometimes the commercial stations air the shows at odd hours, such as 6 a.m. Sunday.
Trible has fared better. Norfolk's WVEC aired the first show Saturday at 7 p.m. Richmond's WWBT used the show Sunday morning as the lead-in to "Meet the Press."