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July 21, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Reality TV Reality TV (July 21, 2004)

Video operators at City Hall bring democracy to local homes

by Jocelyn Dong

It may seem to some as exciting as watching an iceberg melt -- filming government officials as they deliberate on issues such as city budgets and zoning ordinances.

But in Palo Alto, that behind-the-scenes task falls in the hands of about 10 people. They are City Hall video operators, and they fulfill a unique niche in 21st century democracy by bringing democracy to the masses week in and week out. Sitting in a booth at the back of Palo Alto's City Council chambers, they remotely control three cameras that capture the action, out of sight of everyone else at the meeting, and usually for hours on end.

As reality television goes, it's no "Joe Millionaire." But city officials and citizens alike praise the effort that brings Palm-Pilot-driven residents a way to stay abreast of local government.

Year-round, the Palo Alto-based Midpeninsula Community Media Center broadcasts everything from weekly City Council meetings to the occasional Historic Resources Board deliberation on cable channels 26 and 29. The channels reach about 13,000 Palo Alto subscribers, according to Annie Niehaus, the center's executive director..

City Hall operators may seem a humble bunch, but some have even gone on to bigger and better things -- including Hollywood. The work has even attracted the recent interest of Palo Alto City Council member Dena Mossar, who until now has been more accustomed to being in front of the camera than behind it.

Like all worthwhile endeavors, there are sacrifices to be made. Video operators recall many a late night given up in the cause of informing the populace.

Vince Larkin, who now works for Stanford's KZSU-FM radio, said his most challenging evening as a video operator occurred when a Planning & Transportation Commission meeting went to the wee hours of the morning and he was committed to record the Architectural Review Board at 7 a.m.

"We practically slept back in the booth," he said.

Then there's the lack of artistic freedom that comes with the job. Video operators are not allowed to do fancy camera work or zoom in too tightly, although doing so might spice up their work.

"We're not allowed to artificially create drama," said Jeff McGinnis, 26, who last week was eyeballing four monitors and punching buttons as the Planning & Transportation Commission talked zoning ordinances.

Their job is to faithfully record what happens, McGinnis said. He's been broadcasting meetings for four years and aspires to get into the post-production business.

Niehaus, who was the first City Hall video operator back in 1989, said the point is to make sure officials and city staff don't feel uncomfortable.

"In general, if there is a heated debate, you stay on the speaker. You don't get reaction shots" or focus on the opponent's expressions, she said.

Aside from creative constraints, video operators also put up with the irate callers who somehow find the phone number to the booth. In a way, the calls are a blessing in disguise. Operator Phillip Pumphrey, 26, said the complaints are always technical in nature and not something the operators have control over. But at least the calls mean people are watching.

The Media Center has no way of tracking exactly how many people tune in to government meetings, but national studies have shown that city council meetings are the top show people watch on public-access TV. Local sports come in second.

And although community television itself may not seem to draw high interest, the millions of volunteers and employees of such organizations produce some 20,000 hours of new programming each week -- more than all the programming produced by NBC, CBS, ABC, FOX and PBS combined, according to the Alliance for Community Media, a national industry group.

Of the City Hall video alumni, at least one has made a mark in Hollywood. Another went on manage government TV for Foster City.

Michael Heath was a video operator in the late '90s and now works on the TV show "Without a Trace" in the art department, as well as managing props for big-name movies like "Bruce Almighty," "The Hulk" and "Seabiscuit." He's currently involved in the sequel to "Meet the Parents" called "Meet the Fockers," starring Ben Stiller, Robert DeNiro, Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand.

He credits the work he did as a City Hall video operator with teaching him to focus when distractions abound -- a typical scenario when working on a set.

"There's so much to be aware of when you're doing a City Council meeting," he said. "It couldn't be boring because you had to pay attention" to who was speaking.

In fact, he said he misses the City Council meetings. "As tense as it would be sometimes, it was professional (work). This is going out live. If the issue was a hot topic, the pressure was on," he said.

One of the projects he had worked on at the Media Center -- though not in conjunction with the government broadcasts -- even won an Emmy last year.

As for Mossar, she got involved with the Media Center because of a private project she's working on with a friend. When the opportunity came up to gain experience in operating the equipment, she stepped forward.

Mossar expects to be in the booths in Palo Alto, Menlo Park or San Mateo one or two nights a week beginning in September. Watching deliberations through the monitors, she said, will be a "more intense" way of boning up on the issues than reading the city-prepared packets each week.

Perhaps one of the most unusual quirks of being a video operator is the "celebrity" side effect.

Heath explained that after watching people on a monitor for so long, exiting the booth and seeing them in person can be "a strange sensation."

"It was like meeting celebrities," he said, confessing to sometimes feeling "star struck" by the people he watched.

From the other end, Mossar said she's "ceaselessly amazed at how people come up to me and say, 'I saw you on television last night.' "

She said the video training has been helpful, not only for her as a camera operator, but also as a councilwoman.

"I learned a lot about where the cameras were, and what shows and what doesn't show," she said. Every council member, she advised, should spend time in the booth. The Media Center is looking to hire four video operators. Contact Annie Niehaus at 494-8686 for information. Senior staff writer Jocelyn Dong can be reached at

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