Cable Cameras Changing Face of Government

By CHRIS BURRELL

Amy Tierney never bargained on becoming a television celebrity. But now when the top number-cruncher for the Vineyard public schools runs out the door to attend yet another meeting, budgets and invoices aren't the only things dogging her mind.

How about her make-up and wardrobe?

Suddenly, the Vineyard's public servants are starting to pay attention to how they look and sound. The reason is they're being watched like never before by television cameras broadcasting to an Island community of eager viewers.

Over at MVTV, the new cable access organization, they call it "gavel-to-gavel" coverage, and if you're one of the 8,000 subscribers to Adelphia cable on the Vineyard, you can easily tap into the Island version of C-SPAN on Channel 15.

Ms. Tierney - who sports one of the longest job titles on the Island as the assistant to the superintendent for business affairs - could do without all the attention.

"I'm sick of people saying, ‘I saw you on TV,' " she said last week as she waited for the start of an all-Island selectmen's meeting. "It's changed everything."

All over the Island - from selectmen to town meeting floors, school committees and the Martha's Vineyard Commission (MVC) - the cameras are rolling and the microphones laid out to catch every word. Chilmark selectmen make their debut Monday, leaving Aquinnah as the only board of selectmen on the Island, so far, to escape the bright lights.

Meanwhile, the advent of such pervasive television coverage is creating a buzz that's undeniable.

When Martha's Vineyard Regional High School principal Peg Regan walked into a meeting at the library last week, someone asked her, "Do you know Mike Donaroma?"

"Yes, I saw you on TV," she said immediately. Mr. Donaroma is an Edgartown selectman and a commissioner on the MVC. The interchange came with some laughter.

"Everyone is going to know everyone because of TV," Mrs. Regan continued.

Not only have the television cameras lifted the veil of anonymity, they have also changed the behavior of some politicians and possibly tweaked the political landscape of the Vineyard. It's up for debate whether that's a good or bad development.

For one thing, the feedback can be blunt. Mrs. Tierney said one viewer came up to her and said, "I saw you yawning at a selectmen's meeting."

But it's not just the visuals that are drawing comments. A high-tech audio system is forcing some government officials to bite their lips.

"You have to mutter under your breath. You can't make corny jokes anymore," pointed out Mrs. Regan.

The whispering and sideline commentary that used to take place out of earshot are now likely to bleed through the sound lines. That's because MVTV camera operators are packing an arsenal of microphones: so-called shotguns with 15 feet of range and tabletop cardioid condenser mikes that will pick up any noise within a four-foot radius in a 180-degree hemisphere.

"We have so many microphones out," said MVTV training and operations manager Melissa Carelli. "If someone across the room has something to say and it's definitely not nice, we might pick it up."

The name of the game is information, and the folks at the cable access channel pride themselves on delivering an organic product - nothing filtered, edited or censored.

"It's our job to put out whatever comes our way," said Ms. Carelli.

Some Island politicos are concerned that this brand of reality TV could have a chilling effect on participants. Ms. Tierney said some Islanders are too timid to speak up at a meeting knowing that the lens will zoom in on them as soon as they open their mouths.

Oak Bluffs selectman Michael Dutton said others may just opt to stay home and watch a town meeting on television rather than make the effort to attend.

Others argue the result is simple math: mass communication equals a better informed populace.

"Up to now, it's only been the newspapers," said Don Amaral, a finance committee member in Tisbury. "I think it's healthy. The community is starting to see things on TV and become aware."

Robert Tankard, who sits on school committees for both Tisbury and the regional high school and hosts his own show on MVTV called Tank Talk, believes the cameras only make politicians more accountable.

"On television, you've got to watch what you say. You'd better say something concrete or precise or people are going to look at you and say, ‘What is he doing?' " said Mr. Tankard.

Jonathan Revere in West Tisbury is inclined to agree. A longtime political watchdog, Mr. Revere is now manning a camera at selectmen's meetings in that town, but unlike most other camera crews, he's not being paid by MVTV.

The reason: He wants to retain the right to participate in meetings, lobbing questions at selectmen while keeping one finger on the record button. "I'm doing this a private citizen," he said.

After roughly three hours of training in one of Ms. Carelli's video boot camps, Mr. Revere earned his stripes for filming meetings. He'll head to Chilmark Monday as a paid cameraman, agreeing to keep his mouth shut there.

Technique helps. "You've got to keep it from being totally stupefying," he said. " You pan and you zoom and you try to follow a dialogue."

Even if it's not for the artful direction of Mr. Revere, people are tuning in to Channel 15. When the regional high school committee held its first public meeting to discuss the scandal in the culinary arts department, the MVTV camera was there.

"The school committee is the latest, hottest thing," said station manager Stephen Warriner. "Every time there's a hot issue, we see an uptick."

There are no Nielsen ratings for this cable channel, so they measure interest by the number of phone calls from viewers asking when a meeting will be aired.

"I'm really amazed how many people I wouldn't expect to watch this thing are watching it," said Tisbury selectman Tom Pachico.

Some have even planned a party where a televised meeting is the focal point. One Island official said a viewer told her that he and some friends bought beer and sat around the TV watching a school committee meeting.

But what about Oak Bluffs selectmen? For the better part of the last 10 years, they had the limelight all to themselves, their meetings virtually the only government show broadcast on cable TV.

"There's competition now, and it isn't good for my television career," said Mr. Dutton.

Indeed, over in Vineyard Haven, Mr. Pachico is happy to see his board grab a share of the ratings.

"It's the best entertainment on television," he said. As for the Oak Bluffs selectmen, he added, "They're boring compared to us."