By the numbers

lawmakers“Lawmakers” is a news program that airs on Georgia Public Broadcasting while the legislature is in session.  We are among the legions of TV viewers who rarely watch this newscast, but we made an exception Monday.

“Lawmakers” is a dry and curiously stubborn mix of inside baseball and quaint old-school television, rooted squarely in the 1960s or 70s.  It is tightly jammed with information.  And it all but challenges the viewer to summon the dexterity to absorb it all.

In the 1970s at the University of Missouri, there was a legislative guru / Journalism School instructor planted in Jefferson City named Phill Brooks.  Brooks, who’s still there, had one firm rule:  Never refer to a bill in the legislature by its number.  Brooks would be horrified by “Lawmakers.”  Every single bill is prominently referred to as “House Bill 306” or “Senate Resolution 452.”  They even threw in a couple of “FY oh-nine budget” references.  Sometimes the bills got nicknames, like the “superspeeders bill,” a/k/a HB 160.  But the broadcast was choked with bill numbers.

The sound consisted largely of speechification from podiums and committee hearings.  The video from outside the Capitol building was all but nonexistent.  By the numbers:

40. The number of times a House or Senate Bill was referred to by its number during the 30-minute broadcast, referring to

23 different bills, resolutions or budgets.

22 pieces of sound from legislators speaking from the well of the House or Senate chamber or in committee.

8 different pieces of sound from news conferences or interviews, two of them by the Governor.

6 live shots or packages, most of them produced by persons listed in the credits as “interns.”  (And the interns did OK, producing packages that were every bit as clear as the rest of the material in the broadcast.)

2 pieces of video shot outside the Capitol.  One showed generic traffic (on the “superspeeders” bill); the other showed college students at nearby Georgia State University (for a piece on bonuses for management at the Georgia Lottery Corporation).

Zero full screen graphics used to explain any of the legislation under discussion.

This last observation strikes us as the biggest flaw in “Lawmakers.”  This is a world where wallpaper video of the Capitol is often the only available video choice.  It’s visual monotony.  Yet editorially, the minutiae of lawmaking is dense, lacking the blood-and-guts simplicity that fuels the local newscasts of GPB’s commercial cousins.

Every time there’s a report on a bill, it ought to include a  clear graphic describing its intent.   This simple step would make huge strides toward giving “Lawmakers” a watchability  that this well-intentioned program currently lacks.

That, and follow the Phill Brooks credo:  No bill numbers!  (Except, maybe, as a subtitle in a  graphic.Grade:  D+

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Doug Richards is a reporter at WXIA-TV. This is his personal blog. WXIA-TV has nothing whatsoever to do with this blog, under any circumstances, in any form. For anything written herein, Doug accepts sole credit and full blame. Follow him on Twitter: @richardsdoug. All rights reserved. Thanks for visiting.

15 thoughts on “By the numbers

  1. Mr. Bear

    “Lawmakers” does have the feel of attending an autopsy, sitting alongside with a bottle of Scotch whiskey in a brown paper bag, but it is morbidly fascinating in an efficient kind of way. If the broadcast professionals take sides, it is a well hidden matter. On the other hand, it has the inerrant accuracy of the Fulton County Daily Report, which is, in its own way, a very useful thing.

    Reply
  2. Mike

    Lawmakers is all you described. However I think Lawmakers is best understood as “early C-SPAN.”

    Unfortunately, interpretive graphics or commentary about the intent of the bills might get GPB or these interns in a squabble with the partisans–squabbles that for obvious reasons they do not need. These folks at the Capitol get their feathers ruffled pretty easily. So Lawmakers ends up being reports for government geeks.

    IMHO, Lawmakers still exists because it is so innocuous. And because of the interns, who as you point out “did OK.” These interns obviously don’t have the clout or starpower to get scoops or provide commentary like The Capitol Gang.

    Even though you are right about the show, a D+ seems a little rough given its limitations.

    Reply
  3. daryll

    Imagine doing television weather without graphics. Why would one think Lawmakers is any different? Simple Powerpoint graphics would be sufficient. Interns can handle that. No need to use that multi-channel, $200,000 Chyron. To summarize the heart of a bill doesn’t require Mensa level intelligence only the ability to decipher Dr. Seuss. This program has always been nothing more than a showcase for blowhards pretending to serve the fine citizens of the great state of Georgia. Problem is, our tax dollars subsidize this huge televised sleeping pill.

    Reply
  4. Mike

    If they don’t give the bill numbers, how are we supposed to know which ones they are referring to? Since the program seems to try and cover a ton of them, not giving the numbers would seem to muck-up the waters a bit. I could see this policy in a newscast where one story is about the shenanigans at the capitol and one bill, but in this case?

    Nope. Bill numbers are a must-have.

    Reply
  5. Chas

    I agree with the post. It does not take time or money to be creative. While I’ve never seen this show, it sounds like the many many other public affairs show that have come and gone. The fact that a show has become “reports for government geeks” is sad, because unlike the latest car wreck, gas main break, or apartment fire, the issues they tackle affect lots of people. It should be their goal above all else to make what goes on in government understandable to those who are governed. Really, anyone could go to the state legislature and report what happened. “HB 482 passed 32-68,” but make it compelling and you’ve done a good job. Having said that, if you can make the legislature interesting, you’re probably not working at GPB. No offense. On a show such as this they should look at what they have going for them: they’re not forced to lead with the sexy yet useless story, they have the time to dedicate to a complicated story, and their reporting actually matters.

    Reply
  6. Wes F. in Hapeville

    I’ll admit it – I DVR the show and watch it. I’m a junkie. But yes, the production values are a little dicey. It would be nice if they had a scorecard.

    I once heard Ralph Nader say that if the media would use the same approach to political reporting as they did to sports reporting, we’d all be much more informed. Perhaps it’s true.

    One of the poor interns on Tuesday night’s show looked like he was having a “Boom Goes The Dynamite” moment.

    WF

    Reply
  7. monkeyboyproductions

    How dare you! It’s shameful of you to speak poorly of Lawmakers. I would never have advanced to the great heights of my craft if not for my training in the halls of the capitol. Truthfully, shooting proceedings there from a fixed camera position for days on end made me seriously reconsider my career choices…

    Reply
  8. Don B

    Hey, did Levi Johnston and Bristol palin make this newscast? I bet they made every other newscast in Atlanta………………………

    Reply
  9. MouthOfTheSouth

    Dale,

    Lawmakers is one of the rare shows I DVR. Are the production values the highest? No, but no other show delivers the amount of information that shows does, or gives people time to actually discuss issues. And graphics? Do you think FoxNews graphic on top of graphic looks good? Do you think it imparts information?

    Why do you think they are using interns? For fun? Or out of necessity. You should be using this space to get them more money, not to undercut what they do.

    Not every news show gets its own helicopter.

    MotS

    Reply
  10. griftdrift

    Okay, let’s everyone take a deep breath here and perhaps a few of you should actually watch the show before you criticize it.

    Yes, I pick on them because there are comical moments not that far from public access, but…

    1. They do this on a shoe string budget. They use fiber for their live shots instead of a truck. So yes you are paying for it, but let’s not pretend it’s “huge”.

    2. As strange or goofy or as boring as it is, the show takes an entire legislative day and boils it down into a 30 minute broadcast that covers everything the scoundrels voted on that day. You have to ask yourself – if public television isn’t the vehicle to keep us informed on what garbage our state government is pushing, then really what’s the use.

    3. Based on what my sources are telling me, all of this may be moot in the future.

    Reply
  11. daryll

    Interns are only as good as the direction they are given.

    Fox News isn’t wasting our tax dollars when they produce programming for their audiences. I think all of the cable news outlets are at the extreme opposite end with their on air graphic presentations. Yeah, their screens are cluttered like a flea market. Again, a few simple graphics summarizing the bill with that bill’s number would greatly improve Lawmakers. Something so simple yet so powerful for the viewers.

    Reply
  12. scott hedeen

    @ monkeyboy. just because it’s not all beauty shots and tight sequences…. doesnt mean it’s not important. I told myself that a number of times. The content was the primary… the pictures came second. If you can convey content with a great picture… that was the key. That was why i went to work everyday. Content/composition/make slot.

    now for lawmaker levity … representative reality… i did my fair share of gameboy playing while my camera did all the work.

    Reply
  13. Travis Fain

    A lot of print reporters don’t mention bill numbers, either. I do, and I only have one reason.

    Someone might want to read the bill. That’s a lot easier if you know the number.

    Reply

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