As County Executive Charles I. Ecker sat down in the soft leather chair in front of the blinking Christmas tree and squinted into the flood lights, a cable TV technician sought to put him at ease.

"It looks kind of homey," she said.

"You criticizing how I look?" Ecker asked.

"Homey -- not homely," the technician said quickly.

Ecker smiled broadly, his self-deprecating humor becoming a trademark.

It is not, however, what Howard Cable viewers will be seeing for the rest of the month.

They will get 15-second bites on the USA, CNN Headline and CNN channels, in a very formal greeting from Ecker and other elected officials. And they will get them often -- 336 times between now and the end of the month.

By then, viewers will be asking for outtakes.

Ecker, actually, provided very few.

He crossed his legs, folded his hands in his lap, and asked for a quick run through without the tape running.

"Hi. I'm Chuck Ecker," he said. "It's a pleasure for me to wish Howard County citizens a very happy holiday season. May the holiday spirit of peace, the spirit of hope, and the spirit of love, be with you all through the new year . . ."

Republican delegate-elect Marty Madden from District 13B ran away with the most outtakes prize.

Madden, who has learned to sit on his coat tails a la the William Hurt character in "Broadcast News," came prepared to share "the simple joys of Christmas." Instead, he had to share "the simple joys of the holidays."

Madden next discovered that his reminiscences -- getting and trimming the tree, exchanging simple, heartfelt greetings, the family joining together on a cold winter's night -- ran too long. Something had to go. The greeting memory was expunged.

It was a theme he would return to at the end of his 15-second spot anyway, telling viewers he wished them a "happy (pause), love-filled (longer pause) and simple (even longer pause) holiday season."

The studio technician, timing Madden with a stop watch, was going crazy.

Madden would get through his reminiscences in about 12 deft seconds, but then he would slow down and pause for emphasis as he shared his holiday greeting.

After repeated attempts to eliminate the pauses, the technician decided with exasperation, "Close enough!" when Madden finished in 15.87 seconds.

She asked Madden to make two more quick run-throughs and miraculously he finished under the time limit each time. The control room sighed a collective "Whew!"

Madden's performance was in stark contrast to that of Republican state senator-elect Christopher J. McCabe from District 14.

McCabe, who looked very casual in a crew-neck sweater over a shirt and tie, was in the studio less than two minutes. He needed only two takes, each 12 seconds, to tell viewers, "Hi, I'm Chris McCabe. Please accept my heartfelt wishes for you and your family for a happy holiday season. I look forward to representing you in the Maryland Senate."

Republican Delegate Robert Flanagan of District 14B had his wife and two young children join him for his taping. Flanagan spent the first few minutes showing his oldest daughter how a TV camera works and explaining that it would soon be taking her picture.

Teddy bear in tow, she raced to the big leather chair with her sister.

For a moment, it looked like chaos. But the Flanagan family needed but two takes to have the legislator say, "Hi, I'm Bob Flanagan. I represent Howard County in the House of Delegates. This is my wife Diana, our daughter Kay, and our daughter Claire. From all of us to all of you, Happy Holidays."

Afterward, the studio crew told the Flanagans they had never seen such well-behaved children. Two takes. That was really something. Of course Madden -- and County Council member Charles C. Feaga, R-5 -- were still to come.

Like Madden, Feaga had come prepared to wish people a "Merry Christmas," and was thrown off balance by the change to "holidays." Even before he knew he would have to change his script, Feaga had shown all the enthusiasm of a man invited to witness an execution. "Let's get it over with," he said solemnly when it came his turn.

Feaga started out all right, saying, "I represent the western end of the county and I bring you greetings from the western end." It was the "Merry Christmas," that caused problems. Told to be more generic, Feaga added a "Happy Hanukkah." Ultimately, like Madden, he was able to get "Happy Holidays" down.

Madden got it down so well in fact, that when he left the studio, he wished a hearty "Happy Holidays!" to the technical staff.

"Merry Christmas!" they told him in return.

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