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A new look for council on cable TV


No one's quite sure whose idea it was, but County Council watchers can rest their eyes now that the government has spent about $5,000 to make the council chambers look better on cable television.

The changes -- gray panels on the dais in front of council members and on the wall behind them -- were unveiled at Monday night's legislative session.

The changes "will not make County Council members look better, they will make the television [picture] look better," said Serena Mann, station manager for Cable 15, the county government channel.

The problem with the old look, Ms. Mann said, is that vertical wooden slats on the dais and on the council wall appear to vibrate when televised.

"It was a very busy effect," said cable administrator James O'Connor. "After a while my eyes would start crossing."

The problem of the vibrating slats has been around for more than a decade, but officials disagree as to who devised the solution.

Council Administrator Sheila Tolliver says, "The cable people brought it up," and the cable people -- Ms. Mann and Mr. O'Connor -- say it was the council's idea.

No matter who thought it up, "The main thing was to improve the appearance on camera," Mr. O'Connor said.

It is something Ms. Mann has wanted since she took the job as station manager. "When I first came here five years ago, I noticed that the stripes have a tendency to jump around," she said. "Numerous people mentioned it, but we could not stop the stripes from jumping. Newer cameras helped a little, but not that much. [The panels] are definitely a step in the right direction."

Councilwoman Shane Pendergrass, a 1st District Democrat, agrees. She told her colleagues Monday night, "You guys are going to look great" against the new backdrop. Ms. Pendergrass is leaving the council to run for the House of Delegates this fall and won't be around after December.

When the county decided last winter to fix the problem of the vibrating slats, officials called the White House to learn how the federal government created a backdrop for presidential news conferences.

The White House solution, which provided for rear screen projections, was more than county officials felt necessary, but they liked the idea covering the slats with a draw curtain. But that was deemed too expensive -- "$8,000, which I thought was atrocious," Ms. Tolliver said. Also, a curtain would not solve the vibration problem entirely. It would only cover the slats behind the council, not those in front, and would obscure the county seal.

A set designer at Maryland Public Television recommended the panel idea. The panels, which are removable, cover the slats in front and behind council members and highlight the county seal.

Elimination of the vibrating stripes will allow viewers "to concentrate more on what's going on" in council meetings, Mr. O'Connor said. "Today, presentation is everything."

Mr. O'Connor said the new panels will have a slight sound deadening effect, but sound control was not a consideration in the design. If council members forget to turn off their microphones, the sound deadening will probably not be enough to keep their private conversations off the air, he said.

Ms. Mann agreed that sound was not a consideration. "This was visual TV," she said. "It had nothing to with sound." Ms. Mann said Cable 15 technicians will adjust the lighting in council chambers to complement the new panels, but will not add new lighting.

The panels will be paid for from the county's cable television fund.

"When the council approached us, we told them we would find the money," said County Administrator Raquel Sanudo. "We were getting criticism from viewers about the vertical lines. We wanted to eliminate viewer discomfort -- it tires the eyes -- and we decided to take the money from the cable fund." The cable fund is raised by charging cable companies an annual franchise fee of 5 percent of their revenues.

County officials say they do not know the final cost of the new panels, but believe it will be less than $5,000, because the purchase order specified that the work could not cost more than $4,800.

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