News

Cloning Brian Lamb, Coast to Coast

4/30/2000 8:00 PM Eastern

Ask many sociologists about television and they'll complain that the tube lessens community bonds, exacerbates our sense of isolation and is generally detrimental to society.

Yet a select few networks are, like Superman, striving to promote truth, justice and the American way: the rapidly growing number of statewide versions of C-SPAN.

While C-SPAN has been around for 20 years, it was only in the past decade that these state versions began flourishing.

Today, there is at least some gavel-to-gavel coverage of state legislatures in Alaska, California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Jersey, Nevada, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, Texas and Washington. And efforts are under way to launch networks in Montana, Wisconsin, Illinois and New York, among other places.

EVERYONE LEARNS

Many networks go far beyond gavel-to-gavel debates, providing coverage of committee hearings, gubernatorial press conferences, state Supreme Court oral arguments, public-policy speeches at think tanks and even interview shows.

While most speeches are shown unedited with minimal production values to admittedly tiny audiences, network executives said they're helping to save America.

"This is not a passive venture," said the aptly named John Hancock, president of California Channel. "It is a crusade to aid democracy. We empower the viewer."

By televising without analysis or editing, Hancock said, networks make viewers "feel vested to draw their own conclusions and form their own opinions. That makes them more likely to write a letter to the editor, to vote, to lobby or testify on an issue, or maybe even to run for office.

"Making better citizens-that's the ultimate goal," added Bill Trevarthen, executive director of Michigan's MGTV. "We make people realize that this is their government. Lobbying isn't just available to high-priced firms-it's something anyone can do if they understand the system."

Bringing the state capitol into people's living rooms "has engendered strong public activism," said Kimo Brown, public-access coordinator for Hawaii's state legislature. Programming in Hawaii includes a weekly panel of state representatives whom viewers can question by phone, fax and e-mail and an open-microphone show providing citizens seven minutes on any public-policy topic.

Only one network executive-Denny Heck, president and founder of Washington state's TVW-dismissed the civic-enlightenment role, saying, "It's not our job to encourage people to participate. It's not even our job to cause people to be smarter about public policy. Our job is simply to assure people's right to watch their government at work."

The networks can also aid those in charge, as agency hearings help legislators to understand how bills work after being passed, said Terry Martin, project director for Illinois Channel Planning Study.

Also, although no one said so directly, with the cameras on, legislators have to stop shooting rubber bands and throwing paper airplanes and at least feign interest in the proceedings.

The networks are especially important because virtually all local television stations and most newspapers have abandoned full-time coverage of the state government. "So much isn't reported and isn't known about state government that a whole range of issues fall between the cracks," Martin said.

Brian Lockman, CEO of Pennsylvania Cable Network, said that in his state-like in Illinois and many other states-no television reporters are permanently assigned to the capitol. "If we don't do what we're doing, nobody does it," he said, adding that certain elected officials like state judges had never before been held publicly accountable.

Martin said he hopes the coverage will inspire reporters to write more statewide stories. The role model for these networks is clearly C-SPAN. But on the state level, most agreed with Heck, who said, "Brian Lockman has created the ideal network at PCN."

Begun in 1979 as the country's first channel offering college credits for tele-courses, PCN began shifting to the C-SPAN model in 1993 with four hours of programming three days per week. In 1994, it was in 700,000 homes.

Today, PCN runs 17 hours per day, seven days per week, it is in 2.6 million of a potential 3.4 million homes and it has a full-time staff that has grown from six to 19. This is perhaps the largest such staff, televising more hours than most such networks: Some lack even dedicated channel space for their gavel-to-gavel coverage.

Beyond governmental hearings, the network also televises public-policy speeches, and it is adding Philadelphia and Pittsburgh bureaus to pick up major speeches given in those cities.

But the focus is relentlessly local-Lockman didn't cover Desmond Tutu's recent lecture because the international topics are not relevant to PCN's mission.

Lockman has made his greatest mark with viewer-friendly programs like an interview show and a book show, PA Books, which may seem like C-SPAN clones but which are exclusively about Pennsylvania. The book topics range from baseball great Mike Schmidt to the Philadelphia Orchestra.

PCN also offers factory tours. Locales have ranged from Three Mile Island to a company that makes tanks for the Army, although ironically, Hershey Foods Corp. and Mars Inc. wouldn't let the network in for security reasons.

The most unusual programming is PCN's coverage of high-school sports, which Hancock called a "shrewd" decision to attract viewers, although he said his network's board views sports programming as too far afield from the mission.

Heck, who started TVW in 1995, said that while gavel-to-gavel coverage will always be the heart of these networks, many are following Lockman's lead and creating more programming. He is trying to create a "skeletal structure" to encourage "appointment television," albeit on a small scale. Heck already offers a weekly public-affairs interview program and other produced programs.

AUTHORS ON DECK

Since the Washington network already televises speeches made at various Seattle civic associations, Heck wants to pull out all of the lectures given by authors to create an Author's Hour in an assigned time slot. Similarly, he'll designate a time for replays of the oral arguments before the state Supreme Court.

Despite subtle differences, most states have faced similar challenges, particularly in persuading legislators to allow cameras, raising funds and securing carriage.

"A lot of legislators don't want to see themselves televised," Heck said, referring to a general fear that people won't understand the context of debates and the sometimes ritualized language.

"There is also a fear of grandstanding, or that the best speakers will hog the floor, although things pretty much settle down after the first few days," Trevarthen added. Trevarthen also ran into a political quagmire in Michigan when Gov. John Engler, who supported the concept, bought and installed the equipment with money owed to the state by Ameritech Corp. after it overcharged phone customers. Political opponents feared that Engler would try to manipulate coverage to his advantage

and argued that the executive branch shouldn't oversee the televising of the legislative branch.

Even after Engler agreed about the potential conflict and turned MGTV over to cable operators, it took one year (during which executive branch board hearings and state Supreme Court oral arguments were televised) to convince the House and Senate to turn their cameras on. "They were afraid television footage would be used against them in campaigns," Trevarthen said. "But we're absolutely rigid about that."

Over time, the Michigan legislators saw the positive impact the telecasts had on their constituents, making them more concerned and involved. Trevarthen said the House even worked with MGTV on incorporating cameras in its new building.

Hancock said the networks all strive for purity and nonpartisanship-the California Channel gives bona fide candidates free screen time during campaigns, but they are each asked the same questions by the same person to avoid controversy.

"We must have a total nonpartisan viewpoint," he added. "Any other way sets you up for failure."

But acceptance by nearly 20 states doesn't guarantee that the next state has it any easier. New York State Assembly Republican minority leader John Faso said he has been stymied by Democrats and Republicans alike in his efforts to launch NYTV.

"This is entirely political," Faso claimed. "New York has one of the more backward, Byzantine processes and this would shine a light on it. The other legislators are reluctant to allow more people to see how it works. It's like an information blackout, and they like it that way."

Faso said cable operators-which fund and run the public-affairs networks in most other large states-are understandably hesitant to push for this without invitation because they don't want offend the governing bodies that regulate them.

Throughout the rest of the country, though, Hancock said, cable operators-despite their reputation with the public as massive, faceless and greedy-deserve much of the credit for this experiment's success.

"It's only through the kindness of cable folks that we exist," Hancock said. "Who else is stepping up to the plate? They're willing to put dollars behind it. This really is cable at its noble best."

But of course, cable operators undertake the expense partly to enhance their standing in the local community-exploiting cable's primary advantage over direct-broadcast satellite delivery vehicles. The operators also pass along the most of the cost to subscribers, albeit at about only 5 cents per month.

Only New Jersey has tried a for-profit model-the Cable Television Network of New Jersey-and that failed.

The New Jersey initiative has been taken over by the New Jersey Cable Telecommunications Association. Association president Karen Alexander said the state has only gavel-to-gavel legislative coverage, and no longer has a dedicated network. Systems decide when and where to carry it, but in New Jersey-which is known for having 567 distinct municipalities crammed into a small state-the systems focus more on public-affairs programming at community and system level.

Also, Comcast Corp. and Cablevision Systems Corp. each have their own networks filling a public-affairs niche. Cablevision has News 12 New Jersey, a joint venture with Newark's The Star-Ledger, and Comcast has CN8: The Comcast Network.

Not every nonprofit model has worked, either. Hancock said California Channel started out with help from business executives outside of the industry, but its funding came only from operators that carried the channel.

After control of the channel was given over to cable operators, every operator in the state agreed to kick in funding on a per-subscriber basis, regardless of whether all systems were carrying the network. The channel was in 1.1 million homes at its start in 1991, and it is now in 5.2 million of a possible 6.2 million.

Smaller states lack the population base of a California or Michigan, so cable operators would have to charge significantly more per subscriber. Therefore, they must find other sources of revenue to pay for channels.

In Alaska, the cable channel is run by KTOO, the PBS affiliate in Juneau, which funds it with the typical PBS mix of public and private dollars.

In Washington, TVW gets a large state grant with the requirement that it raise private-sector funds. The 501C3 nonprofit status provides Heck with some freedom to operate independently of the legislature, but he acknowledged, "If the government funds went away, we would, too."

In Hawaii, the legislature invites independent contractors to bid to oversee coverage of its hearings. There are no production values to speak of: The job consists largely of hiring crews to set up and break down the equipment borrowed from Olelo: The Corp. for Community Television, the state's public-access channel, which also carries the programming.

In Minnesota, House and Senate staff members handle the production themselves, using taxpayer dollars and distributing through PBS affiliates and cable systems.

Even in large states like Pennsylvania, where operating funds come from cable systems, the cameras in legislative chambers are owned by the legislature. The drawback for these smaller states, Trevarthen said, is that without airing executive and judicial branch hearings and with legislators controlling which, if any, committee hearings get shown, viewers are not getting complete access to their government, and they may miss out on opportunities to make themselves heard.

"It's important to get the full picture of what's going on in the state," added Bill Legere of KTOO. In Hawaii, for instance, the governor's office and the courts are considering setting up their own cameras, which Brown said could result in the different branches of government competing for screen time, placing Olelo in an awkward position and harming the viewers.

Ultimately, though, Heck said, "The best way to do it is any way you can do it. The benefits of doing it at all far outweigh any problems the funding process may cause."

But even with operating funds, budgets are necessarily tight. Lockman-who acknowledged that the networks rely largely on channel surfers-said PCN, which generates some supplemental cash with infomercials, hopes to find some money to buy newspaper and radio spots to increase awareness.

But PCN is the exception. Hancock said he'd love to market the channel, but "we have to deal with realities here, and that would cost more money than I have."

Another reality is the difficulty of getting channel space. While most networks have not had too tough a fight considering that many are run by the operators themselves, carriage limitations remain an issue.

TVW is one of the only 24-7 programmers, but the network is carried full-time in only about one-half of the 1.2 million homes that receive it.

Hancock, whose coverage runs 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. weekdays, said his board has long discussed expansion, but finding and affording satellite time remains an obstacle. Also, while he'd love to add interview and book shows, he's not sure what other programming he could afford.

Meanwhile, many states with part-time legislatures struggle to fill their channels. Legere is paying for a full-time satellite transponder year-round, but Alaska's legislative sessions occur only five months per year, so he has trouble maintaining his channel position. He'd like to expand coverage, but he'd have to show operators that the programming is more appealing then what is on C-SPAN 2, which steps into KTOO's slot during its offseason.

Legere showed Alaskan outdoors and history programming for a while, but ran out of material. He has scheduled teacher and child-care training, but when they've been bumped for special legislative-budget hearings, everyone ends up unhappy.


C-SPANNING THE STATES, Vital statistics for some of the biggest statewide public-affairs channels

State Net Launch Homes Budget Hours/Week


Pennsylvania


PCN


1993


2.6 million


$2.1M


119


Michigan


MGTV


1996


1.6 million


$1M


20


California


Cal Channel


1991


5.2 million


$1.2M


32.5


Sources: the networks

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