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Los Angeles | Patt Morrison

Finally, a Political Player Who's Worth Watching -- on TV

October 21, 2003|Patt Morrison

'Must-see TV! The midseason debut of 'Sacramento 95814.' From the hot and steamy capital city of California, the hot and steamy stories of the powerful men and women who spend their days playing political hardball -- and their nights ... playing. Watch for it -- 10 Pacific time, 9 Central."

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California, the most populous, the most prosperous state in the union, has taken body blow after body blow in the past years. A budget deficit as deep and scary as the Marianas Trench, electricity prices as high as K2, terrorism, water shortages, housing problems, fake political reform, on-the-take scandals, environmental messes.

And did you see all of this on the television news? No, and you wouldn't have, unless the entire Legislature crammed itself, clown-like, into small cars and debated as the CHP chased it down the Golden State Freeway.

Let me put it biblically: Televised news in California has had more than 20 Lean Years from Sacramento -- whole decades starring the workmanlike personalities of George Deukmejian, Pete Wilson and Gray Davis. Did they make good government? Wrong question -- did they make good TV? No way.

They were a hard-landing comedown for TV after the Fat Years of Ronald Reagan, the tough-talking, brush-cutting, sound bite-quipping Republican, and Jerry Brown, the Plymouth-driving, small-is-beautiful-thinking, chanteuse-dating Democrat. The last of Sacramento's out-of-town TV news operations, KRON, closed up shop in 1988, and went back to San Francisco, where politicians still had a perceptible pulse.

Thereafter, only Wyoming and Montana's legislatures got less TV and radio coverage than California's. Most of the time, there's been more political meat in the campaign commercials than in the news coverage.

But now the Age of Arnold is upon us, and the cameras will undoubtedly come back to Sacramento so as not to miss a single frame of -- what? The perfect governor for the mad-doctor hybrid of information and entertainment that a lot of news coverage has become?

My pal Linda Breakstone, the political doyenne at Channel 2, KCBS, believes that's what news has had to do, to survive at all. She was a newspaper reporter who leaped to broadcast when the good ship Herald Examiner began foundering.

With Internet and cable, "there are so many choices for people that it's really hard to bring them into TV news," she told me. "When I first started covering politics, there was not 'Entertainment Tonight,' not an 'Inside Edition'.... Those things have flourished, and why have they flourished? Because people are watching them, and that is what has given TV news a hard time....

"People watch those shows and think they've gotten the news, so local TV news has got to bend over backward to try to capture some of that audience back, which is why it's gone away from longer-format political discussions to quicker, snappier things.

"If viewers wanted a half-hour discussion of a particular bill every night," she said, "if that's what gets the ratings, we'd be doing it. But that's not what's getting ratings. 'ET' is getting ratings. We can't just put it up there. If they don't watch it, it won't do anybody any good."

So, you with the itchy channel-changing finger -- it's your fault. You can't read the supermarket tabloids and then complain about the tactics of the paparazzi; you can't watch tabloid shows and then complain about junk TV.

Well, you could, but you'd sound like Rush Limbaugh whining that too many middle-class white guys are getting away with using drugs.

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A lot of capital cities are legendarily dull spots on their state maps: Carson City vs. Reno or Vegas, Springfield vs. Chicago, Tallahassee vs. Miami. Sacramento would be a backwater, if it had more water.

When her husband was governor, Nancy Reagan supposedly flew back to L.A. to get her hair done. Schwarzenegger told Larry King that it's a "quaint little town." Eleven months ago, asked about whether he'd run for governor, Schwarzenegger parried that "my wife would kill me if I took her there." People are laying bets that he'll make it a weekday job, as a lot of legislators already do, and fly home on weekends, if not more often -- on a private jet, not in the cattle-call class at Southwest Airlines.

Because it hasn't the chic appeal of San Francisco, or the star wattage of Los Angeles, Sacramento and its influential but untelegenic masters have been able to fly under the radar of broadcast news. "Frankly," says Breakstone, "I think the lack of TV stations is why you've seen a lot of these hideous scandals.... Even though the newspapers are [covering Sacramento], the politicians really don't feel the heat until the [camera] light is on."

Will things be any different now? Will "Inside Edition" set up its desk next to Associated Press at the back of the Assembly chamber? Will these newcomers cover California's bond ratings, or Schwarzenegger's Bond Street suits?

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