Look Out, C-SPAN — Here Comes MiCongress

Service Gives Members Unfiltered Time on TV

Posted June 16, 2010 at 6:20pm

Rep. Jim Moran knows the sting of unscripted sound bites: In one memorable instance in 2007, the Virginia Democrat caught media fire for saying that the pro-Israel lobby played a large part in promoting the Iraq War.

But Moran is one of the first Members of Congress to jump into a new service that will broadcast videos of him to his constituents via Comcast’s OnDemand. The new “MiCongress” channel, which launches today, offers Members 30 minutes to talk about whatever they choose, from energy policy to foreign affairs.

In an interview Wednesday, Moran said his staffers had trouble persuading him to participate. When filming first began, he said, he was “cranky” and somewhat uncooperative.

“Ambivalent? I was opposed!” he joked. “I’ve learned to be a little camera-shy. I have more than enough empirical experience in this regard.”

But Moran is now fully behind the service, which he said allows him to talk directly to his constituents on their own time. The segments on his MiCongress channel (pronounced “My Congress”) show him walking around his district, talking to constituents and explaining his views in intimate chats to the camera. In a segment titled “Profile,” he visits the local bagel shop, gives a speech at National Harbor and tells his viewing audience that he fainted the first two times he spoke in public. (Click here to see Moran’s segment.)

And unlike most television spots, Moran had the final say on what made the final cut.

“When it’s being taped, it can wind up being out of context,” he said. “Here, I didn’t have that consideration, so I could just talk and relax.”

The company that created the MiCongress channel, iConstituent, has high hopes for the service. President Stuart Shapiro envisions a channel that will become “as important as C-SPAN,” allowing constituents to hear their Member’s views beyond floor speeches and sound bites.

“I really believe that the floor speeches have a detrimental effect to their image,” he said. “They need more than 30 seconds to explain, and they need to be on the big screen, and they need to look into [constituents’] eyes.”

So far, five Members have bought the service: Reps. Donna Edwards (D-Md.), Heath Shuler (D-N.C.), Solomon Ortiz (D-Texas), Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and Moran. Edwards’, Shuler’s and Ortiz’s segments will go up this week; Ros-Lehtinen is slated to begin shooting on July 1.

But iConstituent has a broad base of Members to recruit for the series. The company provides various constituent services such as e-mail management and website maintenance to more than 200 Member offices.

The MiCongress services costs Members a base price of 2 cents per household in their district each month. So for Moran, for example, keeping the channel up will cost him about $2,200 monthly for the 114,000 households that subscribe to OnDemand through Comcast, Cox and Via Media. However, because of the way OnDemand is set up, his videos can be viewed by any of the 843,000 households who subscribe to OnDemand in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area.

IConstituent charges more to shoot video and edit the content, but Members can also shoot video themselves as often as they like. Shuler’s spokeswoman, Julie Fishman, said the office plans to update its presentation “pretty often.” The videos that will go up this week are a mixture of content filmed by iConstituent and staffers.

For Shuler, the service allows him to reach rural constituents who are more likely to have cable than reliable high-speed Internet.

“I am looking forward to the impact this channel will have on my ability to reach my constituents in Western North Carolina,” Shuler said in a statement. “It is a great opportunity to, in a convenient and personal setting, speak to folks all around the district about the issues that are important to them and to our nation.”

Members are able to pay for the service out of their taxpayer-funded office budgets as long as the videos follow franking rules, which prohibit things such as partisan speech and campaigning. Since viewers have to choose to watch the MiCongress channel, the videos do not qualify under the “mass mailing” blackout period before elections, according to Shapiro.

In essence, he said, it’s an extension of the electronic newsletter. But it’s much easier for constituents to access. Moran hopes the videos will help him keep in touch with a constituency that is constantly changing; each election cycle, he said, 40 percent of them move.

“It’s really pragmatic,” he said. “I have a constituency that is very mobile. I need to reach them, and I need to reach them when they’re available. It’s on their schedule.”