On Tuesday and Wednesday nights at 7 o'clock, Prince George's County television viewers can tune to "Jeopardy," reruns of "Star Trek" or the network news.
Or, with a flip of the dial, they can enter an odd dimension of television, lodged on a frequency between Showtime and The Movie Channel, called "County Council."
Sometimes boring, sometimes silly, sometimes intriguing, the program stars the nine men and women who make up the Prince George's County Council. Under bright lights they labor to bring viewers their government -- with a flash.
Do the politicians play to the audience out in television land? Council members insist they do not, but they are sure their colleagues do.
"I don't hog the camera at all," said Vice Chairman James M. Herl. "I forget that they are there." Yet, ever since a friend told Herl that a white jacket, white shirt and pastel tie he once wore on camera made him look like he was wearing a sheet, Herl has opted for dark suits and offsetting ties.
Council Chairwoman Hilda R. Pemberton considers herself, at least, unaffected: "In some cases, some people are aspiring stars . . . but I would conduct myself the same way even if the cameras weren't there." But Pemberton, too, has given up the dull colors she once wore in favor of designer dresses in bright yellows, reds, blues and greens that complement her dark brown skin and white curly hair.
Hogwash, counters council member Floyd E. Wilson Jr., easily the most flamboyant orator on the council. "Everybody realizes they are there."
All over the region, from Howard County to the District, from Glenarden's three-man operation to Montgomery County's $1 million studio, counties and cities are taking government to the people via cable television's government access stations.
"Council members have come to realize they have a wonderful mechanism to start talking to the public to increase their reach," said Catherine Rice, secretariat for the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors, an arm of the National League of Cities that has helped local officials feel comfortable with the electronic media. "It's probably the most local form of democracy."
Metrovision of Prince George's County, with 40,000 subscribers, and Prime Cable of Maryland, with 60,000 subscribers, began broadcasting the County Council three years ago on Channels 18A and 18B. County Executive Parris Glendening has his own monthly show called "Focus," and the council plans to add soon a second show with an interview format, possibly to include local reporters.
Nationally, the trend toward broadcasting local government meetings started in earnest with the passage of the Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984, which cemented local government's authority to regulate cable television, Rice said.
Local city and county councils discovered that in exchange for giving cable television companies franchise rights, they could get government and public access channels and fees to offset the cost of producing shows, Rice said. The result: Government is brought, many times uncensored and uncut, into millions of American homes each week. It allows voters to watch their councils in action without having to take off from work or leave home to see how issues are decided.
The number of viewers who watch local governments is difficult to determine because many cable companies don't have the capability of measuring market share or are uninterested in surveying viewers. Local governments would want the access channels to continue even if only a small number of viewers tuned in, national and local cable television experts said.
Yet, county leaders in Prince George's say they are "constantly amazed" at the number of people who walk up to them at supermarkets and shopping malls to say they watch them on television.
"People like to see what is happening in their local communities," said Jayne Gerdeman, executive director of the Kanton and Boone Counties Cable Television Board in Ohio, one of the first areas in the country to have cable coverage of county government. "It is one of those things where they might watch five minutes or the whole thing."
Faithful watchers of the Prince George's County Council, on cable between 7 and 9 p.m. on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, know by now what to expect of their council, never known to be a dull bunch. They are used to the sniping, the insults and the behind-the-chair deals.
There's Sue V. Mills dressed in monocolors: red dress, red shoes, red purse, red earrings topped off with her trademark golden beehive hairdo. There's Anthony Cicoria, who conducts government with a phone attached to his ear. There are the angry, blood vessel-popping speeches by council member Wilson and his signature challenge to his colleagues: "If you had the guts, you'd pass this legislation right now!"
"I just call it like I see it. If one is caught doing wrong, tough," Wilson said.
Then too, anything can happen. Such as the time environmental activist Richard LaDieu chained himself to the speaker's podium to protest expansion of Sandy Hill landfill near Bowie. And the time the council bumbled away nearly an hour learning to use their new telephones, including technological wonders such as call transfer.
Said Gerard T. McDonough, former council member and occassional watcher of the council on cable: "It's fun to watch."