Bringing Congress to the Living Room

It’s an average weekday night.

It’s an average weekday night. You’ve put the kids to bed, have work early the next morning, but still have an hour or two of “me time” to relax. You hit the couch with a bowl of rocky road in one hand, remote in the other. Flip through the DVR (Letterman, “The Office”), check out on-demand (“Curb,” maybe “Dexter,”), then comes an unexpected option: a face-to-face with your congressman.

This is the idea behind MiCongress On Demand, the newest communications tool from iConstituent and NCC Media. The service allows a member to reach the living rooms of constituents who subscribe to any of the cable providers that own NCC Media (Cox, Time Warner, and Comcast, among others). Members have their own on demand channels, where they can post floor speeches, town halls and other outreach services.   In addition to making the video content available to viewers, MiCongress provides members with detailed reports allowing the legislator to “track the number of [video on demand] enabled set-top boxes, total and unique views by set-top box, and minutes viewed in total and by each individual sub-channel,” according to the iConstituent MiCongress solution webpage.   MiCongress already has a bevy of users in Congress. Rep. James Moran (D-Va.) was the first, followed by Reps. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.), Donna Edwards (D-Md.) and Rep. Solomon Ortiz (D-Texas). Others, including Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fl.) and Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fl.), are signed up to start next month.   While MiCongress certainly seems innovative, it raises some issues with regard to campaign finance law. In particular, it’s unclear how members ultimately pay for the service. Currently, 30 minutes of video content on an on demand channel costs a member approximately $2,000 per month. So far, members are paying that fee with office funds, not campaign funds. Members are using the budget allowance provided under franking rules. To keep paying for it this way, under congressional rules, the channel must remain nonpartisan and issue-oriented.   Does additional direct constituent communication give incumbents a political advantage? Stuart Shapiro, the cable industry entrepreneur behind MiCongress, does not believe so. Shapiro came up with the idea for MiCongress when he was working with Comcast Broadcasting to develop “My Government On Demand,” a similar cable on demand channel available for candidates and incumbents. “My Government on Demand” is open to all candidates and is where Shapiro sees on demand political advertising taking off. MiCongress, on the other hand, will provide content-based legislative outreach services from elected officials to their constituents as a means to improve trust and show the work being done by members.   Shapiro says MiCongress applications for iPhone and other smart phones are currently in development. As MiCongress continues to grow and popularize, Shapiro envisions surveys, newsletter requests, and direct information becoming available for each congressman’s page. What content legislators put up is very much up to their discretion; members can customize their sub-channels and video as they please.   MiCongress appears focused on a simple concept: As new interfaces between elected officials and constituents continue to pop up, it’s never a bad idea to market yourself through innovative practices within mediums your target viewer is already familiar with. Appeal to the voter or constituent by establishing yourself where they are most comfortable—not the social media galaxy, front door, phone line, or e-mail inbox—but the couch.

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