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The strangely fascinating, sometimes appalling TV show that is City Council

The Real Real World

It's the stuff of great television: emotional soul-baring. Real-life characters. Interactive studio audience. Unscripted — sometimes shocking — story lines.

It should be no surprise that the latest TV show to achieve buzz status in Richmond is "Gavel to Gavel," the live broadcast of Richmond City Council sessions every other Monday night on public television.

"Survivor"? Ha! This is real reality TV. No slick editing. No fat-cat producers. And no one — whether you like it or not — gets voted off until the end of the season.

How many people watch "Gavel to Gavel"? It's difficult to say exactly. The May ratings-book reports viewership at about 1,000 to 2,000 households, but a spokesman for WCVE/WCVW-TV explains that at such low measurements a single Nielsen diary could mean a huge difference. Plus, the sessions are endlessly rebroadcast on cable.

In any case, numbers don't reflect buzz. And lately it's becoming obvious around downtown that many Richmonders are starting to pay attention to the show — and talking about it around water coolers the next day.

The show is democracy in action. In recent months it's veered often into unintentional comedy. And occasionally it's even drama.

Remember the episode when Reva broke down? Or that time the husband of a city employee, straight out of the audience, launched a diatribe against the mayor? And when Sa'ad sermonizes, it's a sight to behold.

And the characters! There's sparkly Tim, trying to maintain order and a sunny disposition while he prepares a run for lieutenant governor. There are Bill, Delores and Manoli — stepping in, stepping out, watching, waiting. And you gotta feel for Joe, who often pleads for some kind of dignity: Richmond has an image to maintain, and this is on TV!

It is indeed. To be exact, it's at 5:45 p.m. on WCVW-Channel 57.

Meet your host, Dick Harman, a radio man who started in the biz back in 1955 in Buffalo, N.Y. He moved to Richmond, and in the late 1970s, became the weekend sports anchor for Channel 8. He ran a local radio station for several years and now is a media-relations coordinator for Atlantic Rural Exposition Inc.

But it's his Monday night gig that has made him (relatively) famous.

Harman was tapped by the public-television station in 1988 to host "Gavel to Gavel," and he's been doing it ever since. He's amazed at how many people stop him on the street, telling him they've seen him on TV. "I couldn't say a certain age group or demographic or anything," Harman says. "It just seems to be a whole scope of people."

Before the council meeting starts, Harman gets 15 minutes of airtime. He interviews a city official or community leader, or he talks about a civic event —"Almost like a pre-game warm-up type thing," he explains.

At 6 or so, City Council begins.

Standing by are four camera operators, a production manager and a studio supervisor, who settle in for what could be a long night.

"It takes patience and a certain amount of resignation that you're going to be there until it's over," says David Vinson, the studio supervisor who directs the broadcast. "And there's nothing you can do about it."

Vinson gives directions from a makeshift control room he compares to a submarine — he's stuffed into an electrical closet off a hall outside council chambers. He sits in front of a console, staring at two monitors that show the two camera shots. (Four camera operators work two cameras, splitting shifts every half-hour.)

While the meeting unfolds — prayer, Pledge of Allegiance, roll call, citizens' comment period, clerk reading consent agenda, debate over the papers to be taken up that night — Vinson tells the cameras which shots to get, and switches between them.

He catches compelling moments. "I think the secret is paying attention," Vinson says. "Some council members have the tendency to go on and on, and it can become quite easy to lose your focus."

But out of the blue something can happen. And that's when he relies on savvy camera operators to predict who might speak next — who might react — and focus in quickly. "Oftentimes it can be quite dramatic," Vinson says.

Even when it's not, though, the meeting can be surprisingly absorbing — like staring at a kaleidoscope of bright, swirling colors, or zoning out in front of a Sunday afternoon golf game, or saying a word over and over until it means nothing.

Every now and then viewers get a gift. A Jerry Springer moment. A good-natured ribbing that eases the mood. A rampage that recalls the epic rat-snake speech from Susan. A heartfelt proclamation. A passionate citizen.

"It's reality TV," says Randy Slovic, an administrative assistant for a local oil company who has become a City Council gadfly. She's taken to videotaping her own shows of the council's informal sessions and broadcasting them on public access.

She figures people are watching "Gavel to Gavel" so intently because the council has been covered so much by local news media lately. Some people just like to catch up on local government, she says. Others like to see what their neighbors are doing.

It's fascinating to watch, she says, because of the glorious diversity.

"You're seeing the mix of people and educational levels and differences in their economic positions and race and everything else," Slovic says. "The fact is that the city of Richmond is a very diverse population. … We have it all, and you cannot expect that all of those people are going to sit down together and be in harmony all the time."

That's what makes living in the city more colorful and interesting than the "homogeneous" suburbs, Slovic says — which, she suspects, are watching, too.

"Maybe the people, who are tuning in and talking about how awful it is in Richmond, feel the same attraction to the diversity and the differences of opinion that, on the other hand, they deride," she says.

The show's director, Vinson, recalls one of his top moments: Gwen, weak from her hunger strike, lashes out at fellow council members for refusing to support her community center.

"It's times like that," Vinson says, "when you think, This is turning out to be good TV after all."

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