It was bad enough to finish second in Irvine's election for mayor, Barry Hammond thought, walking the golf course late last year with his friend Mike McIntyre. But the third-place candidate, who had dropped out a month before the June elections, got more than 10% of the vote.
"It was very distressing," remembered McIntyre, a cable television producer. "Someone who is not a candidate wins 3,000 votes? People aren't awake out there."
Hammond decided to wake them up--and give himself a little public exposure. With McIntyre's help, Hammond now hosts his own cable show in the half-hour slot just before Irvine's City Council meetings are televised. For $100 worth of air time, Hammond kibitzes politics. He tells Irvine cable viewers how the city would run if Barry Hammond were in charge. "It's a lot of fun," Hammond said. "My 2 cents' worth."
Hammond's novel show, "Irvine Today," recognizes an emerging political reality in Orange County: Voters in most cities can now watch local leaders conduct the public's business on cable television. In exchange for their franchises, cable companies are generally required to show city council meetings. And as more city councils go on the air, cable is slowly changing the way elected officials dress, act, campaign for office and reach out to their constituencies.
But a question remains: Is anybody out there and awake?
Very few, experts say, but no one knows for sure. Ratings services haven't yet entered the fledgling local cable market, so the impact of city council television is mostly unmeasured. But the political potential of local cable programming could be enormous.
Politicians hope that viewers are tuned in. They know that the people they need spend time glued to their cabled tubes. Studies show that cable subscribers, which make up about half of Orange County's households, tend to be better educated, richer and more inclined to vote than most.
"It's a pretty good audience," said Eileen Padberg, a veteran Republican political consultant in Orange County. "And I think more people are watching."
Political scholars say cable can open up government, increasing citizen participa-
tion. "Western civilization's origins came out of the Greek city-state, the concept that educated citizens participate in and observe government," said Tracy Westen, who teaches communications law at USC. "For the first time, we have a new version of that city-state. All residents of a city can now watch government make those decisions. It demystifies government, and that is important."
But as that exposure becomes increasingly important to Orange County's local leaders, they also are realizing it has a flip side. Missteps can turn into major political stumbles.
Westminster Councilman Frank Fry Jr. wasn't worrying about the council's first-ever cable broadcast earlier this month. He saw a sparse chamber audience when he urged a Vietnamese military group seeking a parade permit to recognize U.S. holidays instead. "If you want to be South Vietnamese," Fry said, "go back to South Vietnam."
"We all kind of gasped a little bit," said one technician with Rogers Cable TV who was taping the meeting. "That was the first meeting we televised. It's possible he didn't realize that."
The company sold more than a dozen copies of the master tape to incensed Vietnamese groups as the brouhaha unfolded over the next 2 weeks.
"I don't know whether that live taping of the meeting made any difference," Fry recalled later. "It sure created a lot of interest in our next meeting, which was rather dull otherwise."
Other fallouts from cable's increased presence are less explosive. On the cosmetic side, red ties, blue blazers, bright dresses and pastel suits are more popular with elected officials. Former Huntington Beach Mayor Jack Kelly, once a television actor on the 1950s' "Maverick" series, took to wearing a more appropriate blazer over his laced, rawhide shirts after the cameras were turned on in the council chambers.
Some cable operators even hand politicians lists of what colors not to wear and how to move before a camera. Blacks, whites and tight arrow patterns are out. No coughing into the microphone or ruffling papers, either.
In Buena Park earlier this year, sensitive microphones picked up two council members whispering as a man approached the dais to speak. "He even looks like a Nazi," one of the council members said.
And political gadflies can be drawn to the camera's bright lights. Former Anaheim Mayor Ben Bay kept a 3-minute egg timer in public view as a reminder to would-be windbags.
Sid Soffer, a retired restaurateur and regular at Costa Mesa council meetings, keeps an ever-vigilant eye on the tube when he can't attend in person.