Candidates on demand

Comcast program interviews hopefuls in 150 Md. races

October 19, 2006|By Stacey Hirsh | Stacey Hirsh,Sun reporter

State cable viewers who can tap into on-demand movies or exercise shows now have another choice: tuning in 284 candidates running for political office in Maryland, including sheriff, state's attorney and governor, whenever they want.

Comcast Corp., the dominant cable provider in Maryland, is rolling out Candidates on Demand tomorrow. It features five-minute interviews, conducted by a cable news host, with candidates in 150 Maryland races.

"This is an opportunity for people to sit back in their own homes and watch this as a family or watch it as an individual and make decisions about who they want to vote for," said Michael A. Doyle, president of Comcast's Eastern Division. The segments will help voters "fight through the clutter of all these ads," he said.

The programming, the first of its kind in Maryland, is being offered at a time when technology is playing an increasing role in political campaigns.

The video component of campaigning has taken off with the popularity of Web sites such as video-sharing YouTube.com, said Joe Trippi, author of The Revolution Will Not Be Televised and former campaign manager for Howard Dean, whose adept use of the Internet made him an early front-runner for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination.

This year, the Virginia Senate race grabbed national attention after a video of Republican Sen. George Allen using the term "macaca" to refer to an opponent's volunteer was posted on YouTube.

"Now, even tools and technologies I would have salivated over running the Dean campaign, like YouTube, are just really even further changing the landscape where you have candidates who are sending someone around with a digicam recorder, and every time the [opponent] screws up, they're putting it on YouTube," Trippi said.

The way Maryland politicians use technology is also changing. When Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett set up his office 16 years ago, the 6th District Republican didn't have e-mail. Last year, his office got more than 30,000 e-mails, Bartlett said.

And when Democratic gubernatorial candidate Martin O'Malley was first elected Baltimore mayor in 1999, about 80 percent of the city's requests from residents came in on paper. Today, about 80 percent are sent via e-mail, O'Malley said.

"Not too many years ago, in order to communicate with your supporters in a massive blanket way, you would have to make hundreds and hundreds of phone calls or lick the stamps and stuff the envelopes. And then by the time they got the information and the call to duty, it was already a week old," O'Malley said in an interview after his taping last week for Candidates on Demand.

"So the Internet's been a huge tool, webcasting's a huge tool, e-mail chains, e-mail lists are a huge tool."

Comcast's Doyle sees Candidates on Demand as a way to encourage citizens to vote and TO educate them about the candidates.

As more viewers want to watch programs on their own schedule, rather than one set by the networks, the cable giant's on-demand offerings have been growing. Comcast has added programming such as Dating on Demand and Karaoke on Demand.

In July, Comcast's on-demand programming set a monthly record as viewers watched 170 million on-demand shows.

Baltimore viewers watched more than 40 million shows from the beginning of this year through July, 28 million more than in the corresponding period a year earlier, according to the most recent numbers available from Comcast.

Comcast said it is the first cable company to offer programming such as Candidates on Demand, which it began in Colorado during the 2004 Senate race. Last year, the technology was available for the New Jersey governor's race.

This year, Comcast has taped more than 500 interviews with political candidates in more than 350 races in Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, Virginia, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia. The interviews are aired in their entirety; Comcast does not edit the content.

"This is an important platform for us, and the fact that the candidates take it seriously also is an acknowledgment to us that this is a good thing to do," Doyle said.

The cable company invited almost 800 candidates to participate, and about 75 percent chose to participate, including O'Malley and Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. Ehrlich declined to have a reporter present during his taping.

Arthur W. Murphy, a former television producer and partner at Democracy Group, a political consulting firm in Annapolis, said the service could be helpful to voters, but he called the five-minute interview format "boring" and said it won't give candidates the chance to discuss issues of their choosing.

Matthew Crenson, a Johns Hopkins University political science professor, said the segments are an improvement over the 30- and 60-second paid political ads aired on television. Some undecided voters might find the interviews useful, but those voters are less likely to seek out the information, he said.

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