SACRAMENTO — This was vintage talk TV. As a trio of television cameras stared, phone calls from the public poured in. The topic was pure Geraldo: prison inmates who use the mail to harass their victims.
It struck a nerve out in television land. Callers were outraged! Disgusted! Fed up with the bureaucratic ineptitude! Oprah would have been delighted.
But this was not the verbal slash-and-burn of talk television. Instead, the setting was a green-carpeted Capitol hearing room, where the Assembly Public Safety Committee last week conducted what promises to become a staple of legislative life in Sacramento--an interactive hearing.
Borrowing from Ross Perot and his nationwide town hall meetings, the Legislature has begun taking calls from everyday citizens during hearings on key topics televised over the nonprofit California Channel, which reaches 2.6 million households in the state through 62 cable TV outlets.
So far, five interactive hearings have been held in Sacramento since the concept debuted in February. Many more are expected. The idea is to open up the legislative process, to make it more user-friendly, to create a hearing room without walls and occupancy limits.
"It gives people a sense that they can participate, that government is somewhat accessible," said Assemblyman Tom Umberg, the Orange County Democrat who organized last week's hearing. "I think it's useful for us to hear their questions, what's on their minds."
Capitol watchdogs also like what they see. "I think they have potential for really revolutionizing public participation in government," said Ruth Holton, executive director of California Common Cause, a public interest group. "Right now, legislators are only hearing from lobbyists. The greater the diversity of voices, the better."
But some political scientists suggest that such interactive sessions are rife with possible problems as well as promise. The soothing image of legislative hearings conducted via phone banks, they say, provides only an illusion of broad involvement while potentially offering a skewed impression of public opinion.
"It's an ersatz form of participation," said Mark Petracca, a UC Irvine associate professor of political science. "The public should be very suspicious and appreciate it for what it is--political theater. We go through the theater of allowing the public to have its say, creating the impression that our lawmakers are being responsive to the public."
In fact, Petracca said, callers to such hearings represent only a small fraction of the public--those who get the California Channel, those who happen to be watching and, most important, those who feel so strongly about an issue that they bother to dial the toll-free number.
Petracca also fears that calls could be filtered or fabricated, a dangerous possibility for a medium that has vast potential to sway or cement public perceptions. "The phone call is only a prop," Petracca said. "And, frankly, there's no real need for those calls to be authentic. The staffers could be in the back room calling."
Others play down such Machiavellian possibilities. Interactive hearings, they say, will help fuel democracy by giving the average citizen a chance to weigh in on some of the state's meatier issues.
"It's not perfect, but it does extend democracy," said Douglas Stone, the Assembly television project director. "To me, this is a way of changing the body politic. It's a way to make government more consumer oriented."
So far, legislators have exhibited a knack for picking topics that make good TV. Each of the hearings has lit up the phone bank, with more than a dozen calls getting on the air during each three-hour session. "Members seem to be getting very good at tailoring their issues to this format," said Assemblywoman Gwen Moore (D-Los Angeles), vice chairwoman of the committee overseeing the television project.
While the first five interactive hearings dealt mainly with issues pushed by Democrats, Moore and others say it is only a matter of time before Republicans jump in with ideas. She discounted any notion that partisan politics has dictated what interactive programs have been aired, noting that the TV committee is headed by Assemblyman Stan Statham of Oak Run, the only Republican to chair an Assembly committee.
The concept's prime weakness may be the California Channel's lack of saturation in the state. Fewer than half the homes in California that are wired for cable receive the channel, which also features gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Legislature. Continental, the largest cable system in Los Angeles, does not carry the California Channel; in Orange County, only the 133,000 subscribers to Dimension Cable in the southern end of the county get it. Stone said negotiations are under way to expand the channel's reach.