IT WAS A BIG YAWN around Washington when the House started televising its floor proceedings last March. Who on earth would watch them if they didn't have to?
Lots of people.
For three days in May, thousands in Alaska were glued to their TVs watching the House debate the Alaska lands bill. For Patricia Scoog of Anchorage it was "the best thing to happen in our remote state for a long time." Don Coffey of Palmer called it "second only to seeing man walk on the moon."
In other words, while the more jaded in Washington may find House sessions something mainly to be tolerated, for many Americans the pictures from the House are the first real chance they've had to watch their national government in action.
Not that the House, which has imposed severe restrictions on what can be shown, has made the telecasts terribly attractive. For the most part, for example, the cameras, just focus tightly on the person who's speaking. Thus, although the service is provided free and can be aired live or taped for later showing by commercial, public and cable TV, so far only cable has made much use of it.
Continuous coverage of the floor is broadcast over a nonprofit network, formed by the cable industry, called C-SPAN - for Cable Satellite Public Affairs Network. C-SPAN has practically saturated California and Florida, but in most other states only a handful of systems are hooked up.
New stations are being added steadily, though, according to C-SPAN President Brian Lamb. When the House went on the air in March, there were 370 stations. By September, according to Lamb, 500 stations will be linked up, representing a potential viewing audience of 15 million. As new cable systems are built - currently only one home in five is on cable - millions of others will be able to tune in. School systems also will be hooked up, further swelling the potential audience.
While no surveys have been taken yet, from the letters he gets Lamb is convinced the House already has a devoted following. He hears from many like Joshua Leisdorf of Atlantic Highlands, N.J., who calls the House sessions "the best shown on TV." E. L. Gedand of Castro Valley, Calif., says, "It's the single most important contribution to making the public share in their government."
The legislative junkies
Lamb claims C-SPAN has already created a fair number of legislative junkies. One night last May in West Palm Beach, the cable operator accidentally dropped the House telecast during a crucial point in the gas rationing debate - right before the vote on whether to give President Carter stand-by rationing authority. Within seconds, the switchboard lit up with calls from a dozen angry viewers.
Only last week, in the midst of the debate on a constitutional amendment to bar busing for desegregation, thunderstorms in the Washington area caused the picture and sound to start fading in and out for about half an hour. Lamb got calls from cable operators across the country who said they were being beseiged by complaining subscribers. The operator in Akron, Ohio, alone got 150 calls.
Lamb gets a lot of suggestions and criticisms from viewers, too. Chiefly, they complain about the blackout on floor proceedings while a vote is being taken - a precaution insisted on by House Speaker Tip O'Neill, who is virtual czar over these matters. For 15 minutes, the telecast shows nothing but a placard with a running vote tally. Viewers don't get to see how individual members vote, and they miss the arm twisting and the crook of the finger summoning a member to the Speaker's dias that frequently precedes a vote change.
Others write asking to see wider shots of the floor, including one woman who said she'd like to see the faces of the members she heard booing in the back.
Another problem with the C-SPAN broadcasts is the absence of a commentator who could explain parliamentary procedure. Lamb gets a lot of requests for the meaning of arcane phrases like "I ask unanimous consent for members to revise and extend their remarks" - or the one that seems to drive people crazy, "I move to strike the requisite number of words" (basically meaning "May I please have the floor?")
All this may help explain why public TV and the networks still find the House show a bore. WETA-TV, Washington's public station, took several hours of the House feed the day it was started but has used nothing since. CBS says it has used "only a few" excerpts. ABC counts about a dozen and NBC "somewhere between a dozen or two."
ABC Washington Bureau Chief George Watson says on the basis of what they've seen so far, he doubts they'll be using the House much more frequently in the future. "The House in modern times," he says, "has not exactly been a forum of great debate. So far, we've really only used excerpts when there's been a critical vote."
NBC Bureau Chief Sid Davis sounds a more positive note: "The pictures from the House have helped to enlighten and embellish our broadcasts." Davis was particularly pleased with one NBC report on the energy crisis that showed members from agricultural districts vying for fuel with members from urban areas. "It really illustrated the push and pull," he says. "You just can't describe that kind of thing after the fact."
But Davis and the others complain bitterly about House control over the system. Ed Fouhy, CBS bureau chief, says, "It's unconscionable that the House should control the public's perception of itself. It's totally inconsistent with the traditions of American journalism."
All three networks and public television are currently negotiating with the Senate in hopes of televising the SALT debate on the Senate floor this fall. And they are continuing to press for the right to control the system if and when the Senate lets the cameras in one a regular basis.
Playing to an empty house
The control issue is just about the only real argument left for House TV. For a subject that was so controversial for so many years - the first resolution to broadcast House proceedings was introduced more than 30 years ago - the lawmakers have adjusted to TV with remarkable ease. Democratic Rep. Charles Rose of North Carolina, chairman of the Speaker's Ad Hoc Committee on Broadcasting, has received few complaints.
Initially, many congressmen feared that proceedings would be slowed as some members found the lure of the cameras irresistable. But there's not much evidence of this happening so far.
Here and there an incident will raise some eyebrows. One day last May, for example, Demorcratic Rep. John Seiberling of Ohio took the floor near the close of legislative business to give a speech on the Alaska lands debate. He went into great detail, supporting his points with maps and charts. He gestured expansively. He argued interminably - a full hour. None of this would have been unusual - except that the chamber was empty. Besides the chair, Seiberling was the only member there.
The one-minute speech period seems a little more popular these days, too. Democratic Rep. Carroll Hubbard of Kentucky may have had TV in mind the day he paid tribute to a certain Charlie Babb of Mayfield, Ky., who was retiring from the Mayfield city council. The citizens of Mayfield, it turns out, can watch the House live on cable. Or were the cameras beckoning to Democratic Rep. Henry Gonzales of Texas when he got up recently to wish yet another colleague happy birthday?
But even if such speeches are increasing somewhat because of TV, it hasn't upset anybody much. The House, after all, is used to eccentric behavior and trivial pronouncements, and members are inclined to tolerate a certain amount of silliness so long as it doesn't unduly hold up the legislative process.
House Speaker O'Neill is among the few who have expressed second thoughts about the TV system. He told Newsweek that installing TV in the House was a "terrible mistake" that had led to interminable floor proceedings. Modifying his stand a bit later, he told a press conference that while TV did play a part in lengthening the long debate over the budget, he thought the grand-standing eventually would settle down.
Rep. Dave Stockman of Michigan, the Republican member of the Speaker's Broadcasting Committee, says O'Neill's criticism was just a case of looking for something to blame. "The House is not moving very quickly on anything," Stockman says, "and the Speaker is getting very frustrated. But it's pure scrapegoating to blame the length of the budget debate on TV."
Another cause for concern before TV arrived was the possibility that some members would use the tapes to gain undue political advantage. "The House," predicted Republican Rep. John Anderson of Illinois, "will develop a ravenous tape worm." Under the rules drawn up by the Rose committee, however, members are barred from using tapes for "political or commercial purposes."
In practice, this means they can supply excerpts to TV stations for replay on newscasts, but they can't use the other activity that "might influence the outcome of an election."
The use of tapes is also inhibited by the cost (30 minutes, the minimum purchase, costs $104) and by the fact that tapes are not available until the next day, which reduces their news value. So far, only 22 members have purchased exerpts of themselves from the House. Twenty-five others have bought tapes from Skycom, a firm whose prices are slightly cheaper but whose main appeal is the promise of same-day service.
Anderson still worries that many members will install professional-quality recording devices in their offices. Only the more expensive videotape recorders can produce air-quality copies, but the rules prohibit buying such recorders out of office expense money.
By far the most appealing aspect of the system for House members and their staffs is that they can now sit in their offices, follow the proceedings on TV and still tend to other business. They say it saves time and it makes for better-informed voting and more independence. "Before," says Rep. Rose, "if an amendment came up, you might not realize if it were bad or mischievous. Now you know what you're voting on."
Other congressmen say they are enjoying greater independence now that they don't have to rush over to the floor the last minute and rely on a thumbs-up or thumbs-down from the leadership to tell them how to vote. Staffers may be the happiest of all. They say they feel more a part of what's happening when they watch the House action live instead of reading about it the next day in the cut-and-dried Congressional Record.
Among House members, there is considerable sentiment for "opening up" the system - letting the cameras pan around freely and allowing the vote process to be seen. But there's no real disposition to make a fight over it. "Tip O'Neill has spoken," says Stockman, "and until and unless he changes his mind, nothing's going to change."
The Senate, meanwhile, is watching the House TV experiment carefully, but it shows not sings of rushing pell-mell into the video age. Rose predicts there won't be much interest "until a couple of young House members run for the Senate based on the statewide reputation they've gained through C-SPAN."
If the Senate does allow the cameras in, hopefully it won't follow the House example of sealing off important parts of the process from public view. If it turns out that the public is able to see Sen. Edward Kennedy deliver an impasioned speech on behalf of SALT II on the floor of the Senate, why shouldn't people be able to see the scowl on the face of a Jesse Helms, who opposes the treaty. The atmosphere, the reactions are all part of the process, and viewers are entitled to see it all. CAPTION: Pictures 1 through 4, no caption, By James K. W. Atherton - The Washington Post