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Free Air Time Draws Pols Like Moths to a Flame : Question Remains: Anyone Out There?

November 20, 1987|JOHN NEEDHAM | Times County Bureau Chief

A county supervisor interviewing the dogcatcher? For this you buy cable television? Or can this be the long-awaited cure for insomnia?

But wait, there's more.

Succeeding weeks feature the county supervisor, Don R. Roth, interviewing the county's consultant on jail overcrowding, an official of the county Transportation Commission, and an expert on "trash and general services."

Now, just when you thought it was safe to turn on the TV if you didn't live in Roth's district, there's the news flash that the "Don Roth Show" is going countywide. No longer will only the folks in the Anaheim area be able to watch this stuff. The show is already seen in five other communities and will be made available to other cable systems in the county too.

But if Geraldo Rivera has his own over-the-air TV show, and boxing promoter Don King has his, and there are all those shop-at-home shows featuring genuine zircons if you call in the next few minutes, does anyone actually watch Don Roth?

"Twenty to 25% of our customers watch shows like city council meetings and the Roth show," says Richard J. Waterman, vice president and general manager of ML Media Cable TV, which provides the facilities Roth uses to tape the show and which airs it on its system in the Anaheim area.

"That doesn't mean that somebody sits down and watches a meeting in its entirety," Waterman admits. But if you televise a city council meeting live, "people will come down to a council meeting because it rang their bell and they want to have a say in it."

Roth had a cable show while mayor of Anaheim and continued it when he became a supervisor this year. Supervisor Harriett M. Wieder also revived her cable show this year. And Board Chairman Roger Stanton has had a cable show for two years.

Even the board's newest member, Gaddi H. Vasquez, has gotten into the act. Vasquez appeared in September on a live cable show to answer questions phoned in by viewers, did it again this month and plans to make it a regular show.

Still, there is the question of whether anyone watches.

No cable company said it had actual ratings for these programs; other guesses are lower than Waterman's high viewership estimate.

Linda Moulton of Rogers Cable TV says her firm estimates that 1% of the subscribers in the Huntington Beach vicinity watch programs on the local-access channel.

In San Francisco, the vice president of the California Cable TV Assn., Jerry Yanowitz, says there is no list of which politicians have shows and no indications that they keep hordes of viewers glued to their TVs.

Then why do stations show this stuff? Because they have to.

"You could go in and film your daughter's birthday party and put it on the air if you wanted to," under the requirements imposed on cable system operators by Congress, says Richard Anderson of Dimension Cable Services.

Anderson, whose San Juan Capistrano-based company is a subsidiary of Times Mirror Co., says that under 1984 congressional legislation, cable operators no longer have to originate shows locally, sending crews out into the community to film a Pop Warner league bake sale or a high school car-washing event.

But he says most contracts still require public access, meaning that if someone shows up at the studio, the person must be trained in how to use the equipment and given a chance to air the result.

Free TV Time

The four Orange County supervisors are among California city council members, supervisors and members of Congress who use this politician's dream: free TV time. The programs are paid for by the cable systems that provide the taping facilities, the supervisors say, and don't cost taxpayers anything.

"I understand that Phil Donahue is quite frightened (by the competition)," Stanton says, unable say it with a straight face. "As a matter of fact, Donahue and Oprah Winfrey have both sent me letters saying they feel threatened."

Given the nature of the shows and the somewhat limited talent pool available, there is a certain amount of overlap in the guest list. Both Roth and Stanton have had Chief Asst. Dist. Atty. Michael Capizzi, county Fire Chief Larry Holms and experts on earthquake preparedness on their shows.

Stanton says he gets no formal feedback on the show but hears "a lot of stuff at receptions, people saying, 'Oh, I saw your stuff on this.' " He calls the show "useful" and a "part of the job of getting the information out there."

"I enjoy it," Stanton says. "If someone started sending me rotten tomatoes in the mail, I'd stop. On second thought, I'd have to get a bushel basket of them."

'Large Audience'

Two of the five men who represent Orange County in Congress are hosts for cable programs, and former San Diego County Supervisor Jim Bates liked the TV show he had while a supervisor so much that he took it to Washington with him when he became a congressman.

"San Diego has the highest percentage of cable TV subscribers anywhere in the country, so we have a large audience," says Jim Bartell, chief of staff to Bates, a Democrat.

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