On These Nets, Politics Is Local


When California State Sen. Jim Brulte (R-Rancho Cucamonga) wanted to hear what was going on in special Sunday budget discussions planned in the Assembly a few weeks ago, he knew just who to call.

He dialed The California Channel to make sure the cable public-affairs network was covering the lower house's unusual work session, according to network president John Hancock.

"He watched it on the Web from his office, and later called to thank me," said Hancock, who added that the venture received calls from around the state to make sure there was coverage of the vital meeting.

The network undertook the Sunday broadcast because backers understand the service is for citizens who want to truly understand the way the process works, Hancock said.

It's the kind of coverage provided each workday by public-affairs networks across the country, including nets funded exclusively by cable, like the California Channel and Pennsylvania Cable Network, as well as services bankrolled by the legislators themselves with cable serving as an in-kind donor of all-important channel space.

Cable derives many benefits. It gains the goodwill of decision-makers such as the aforementioned Senate leaders. It attracts an admittedly small-but-growing viewership of devoted "government gadflies" that view the channels avidly.

And — because channel officials say direct-broadcast satellite companies have shown no interest in their regional fare — the industry gains relatively cheap, exclusive programming.

These networks also have access to something C-SPAN — the national icon — doesn't. Some statewide networks, such as TVW, the Washington state public-affairs network, and Michigan Government Television, televise arguments before the state Supreme Court.

So why aren't there 50 state public-affairs networks?

"We're not a flashy addition," said Paul Giguere, president and founder of Connecticut Network. "We're not talked about at trade shows and we don't bring in revenue."

Budget woes

Interestingly, the programming of most interest these days — coverage of efforts to trim state budget deficits — has also made it harder to launch new public-affairs networks.

The soft economy has caused budget deficits in 46 of 50 states — and crimped cable companies are seeking new revenue-generating products, rather than reserving valuable shelf space for nonprofit enterprises.

Still, new public-affairs networks are in their formative stages. They're also generating debate over how the services of the future will look from a business perspective.

In Illinois, public-affairs fans are already producing programming provided free to operators for use on local government channels.

So far, 350,000 cable homes in 21 communities can see the two-hour tapes each week, said Terry Martin, a C-SPAN veteran who's trying to get the Illinois Channel off the ground as an around-the-clock network.

Instead of soliciting for state funds — Illinois faces a $5 billion budget hole — or financing from cable operators, Martin is organizing the channel as a privately funded venture. Seed money has come from local companies, notably Boeing Corp., which donated $50,000.

The civic-minded Joyce Foundation underwrote a $400,000, three-year study to determine interest and support for the venture. It also gave $30,000 directly to the channel, Martin said.

The study, completed in 2000, indicated it would cost $3.2 million a year to operate a network 24/7. But Martin said satellite costs have come down since then.

"If we could get halfway there, I think the state would provide further funding," he said.

Journalistic approach

A longtime state capitol reporter, Jeff Roberts, is taking the nonprofit route in Wisconsin, too. He's confident that Wisconsin Eye — under development for two years and with the stated support of Gov. Jim Doyle, legislative leaders and the state's chief judge — can launch in early 2004.

The network, which has solicited operating funds from foundations and other Wisconsin sources, has already attracted enough cash to begin construction of a studio across the street from the state capitol in Madison.

The state's two largest cable providers, Charter Communications Inc. and Time Warner Cable, have expressed support. Charter's headend will be the distribution point, and the MSO is helping install fiber-optic connections from the studio to the Statehouse, agencies and other sites.

Roberts admits the channel represents a big fundraising commitment. According to a consultant's report, Wisconsin Eye will require $6 million in initial capitalization, plus $1.5 million per year in operating expenses.

"We looked at other state models and decided to try, if we could, a journalistic approach, creating a credible independent source, instead of one whose message could be skewed by the party in power," Roberts said.

Non-profit shift

The nonprofit model is certainly a sea change for public-affairs networks.

Current networks are a mixture of those funded and distributed exclusively by cable, like The California Channel and the Pennsylvania Cable Network, and government-media partnerships, such as Michigan Government Television (MGTV).

"What works best is what works," said Danny Heck, founding president of TVW, who will retire this month. "Here, cable wouldn't provide us the funds. We wouldn't exist if we had had to be cable-only."

TVW activated its signal in 1995, despite controversy. The Statehouse supported the venture, but senators were sharply divided. Eventually, state officials approved an annual expenditure of $2 million to televise the Legislature, state agencies and the Supreme Court.

Given the debate over cameras in courtrooms elsewhere, access in Washington was easy.

"I wish I could tell you I was exceedingly clever, but they just wanted it," said Heck.

Connecticut's CT-N has also thrived as a public-private partnership, though tough times are altering the funding model, Giguere said.

In the future, the channel's $1.5 million annual budget could be tied to a gross-receiepts tax levied on the state's cable operators. That tax might be expanded to the state's satellite providers — so, in future, DBS might help subsidize the cable-only service.

Since 1999, CT-N has provided gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Legislature, agencies and the state Supreme Court. Filling out its 24/7 schedule: Events like the Discovery Health lecture series at the University of Connecticut and public policy lectures at Yale University.

Cable guys happy

Cable-funded networks like their business plans.

The California Channel launched in 1991, foundering at first. Operators were slow to back a channel controlled by a board of directors from non-cable companies, including then-Pacific Bell, The Walt Disney Co. and Bank of America. In 1993, non-industry board members resigned and operator uneasiness faded.

Today, the California network operates with a $1.3 million budget, funded by per-subscriber contributions from the state's operators.

Operators contribute shelf space. And individual systems, such as the Los Angeles franchises of Comcast Corp. and Adelphia Communications Corp., produce 300 hours of original programming per year. The channel covers state government for 6½ hours a day on weekdays.

"There's a cooperative spirit here," said Hancock. "[Operators are committed] for the long haul."

Branching out

The Pennsylvania Cable Network launched with the support of home-grown cable companies in 1979, transmitting college telecourses via microwave.

Today, it's industry-funded annual budget is $3.5 million, and the 24-hour net covers 85% of the state, president Brian Lockman said.

PCN takes public service beyond politics. It has exclusive rights to state high school sports championships. It has bureaus at the state's two largest newspapers. And in October, it will light up fiber connections that will enhance legislative coverage statewide.

Lockman said original programming has proved a hit, including weekend homework call-in shows for students, and a series that highlights local industries such as the maker of Slinky toys and Harley-Davidson Inc. PCN also produced an extensive oral history of local World War II veterans.

MGTV has taken on the challenge of building viewership by getting students interested in the channel. Executives saw the light four years ago, when they created a virtual field trip for students in a low-income area who couldn't afford to visit the capital, said executive director Bill Trevarthen.

After that, he said: "The students were walking on air. And if just two of them become better citizens, we'll be walking on air."