June 14, 2011 - 2:05 pm
By Steven Waldman | Senior Advisor to the Chairman

From 2003 to 2008, the amount spent by state governments rose almost 20 percent. During the same time, the number of reporters covering state government declined by one third. Though it's no panacea, one thing that might help is if every state in the country had a state-level C-SPAN. 

Chapter 8 of the Information Needs of Communities report states:

“Currently, state public affairs networks (SPANs) air on cable TV systems in 23 states and the District of Columbia, delivering gavel-to-gavel coverage of state legislative, executive, judicial, and agency proceedings, as well as public policy events, supplemented with a wide variety of produced public affairs programming.7 Furthermore, the National Conference on State Legis­latures has found that live webcasts (audio, video, or both) of legislative proceedings are available from at least one chamber (House, Senate, or both) in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands.8 Al­though many of these webcasts are available to the public via broadcast or online links, in 29 states or territories they are not carried on cable.9 To date, satellite providers have not carried SPANs in any state except Alaska.10

In several states, SPANs have played a key role in providing statehouse and other political coverage. For example:

> During the lead-up to the 2010 elections, Connecticut’s public affairs network, CT-N, aired 96 hours of de­bates, which included 10 gubernatorial debates, eight between U.S. Senate candidates, and others between candidates for attorney general, secretary of state, and comptroller.11 In 2003, CT-N chronicled the governor’s entire impeachment investigation, from the legislature’s Select Committee of Inquiry to the state Supreme Court.12 In 2005, when the Federal Base Realignment and Closure Commission sought to close Connecticut’s New London Submarine Base, CT-N provided detailed coverage of public strategy sessions held by Governor Rell, the Connecticut Congressional Delegation, and other state leaders aimed at building a case for saving the base and the tens of thousands of Connecticut jobs that came with it.13

> WisconsinEye’s 2010 election coverage included 300 programs about the elections, including interviews with more than 100 of the candidates for state legislature.14 During the 2009 state budget-making process, Wis­consin citizens had access to a verbatim record of the entire public process from WisconsinEye, including all legislative floor activity and all meetings of the Joint Committee on Finance, both in the Capitol and in a series of public field hearings the joint committee held statewide.15

> TVW in Washington State was nominated for a regional Emmy Award for a series of programs that spot­lighted high school and middle school students involved in the public policy process.16 As the Seattle Times noted, “Once expected to be the haven for policy wonks and insomniacs, TVW has emerged as a versatile forum for Washington citizens’ participation and monitoring of state government and other institutions,” allowing citizens to follow state proceedings on TV, streaming video, and podcasts.17 In the 2010 elections, TVW aired 15 debates, 10 of which were for congressional seats and were not covered by local broadcasters. It provided particular focus on the state’s 11 ballot initiatives—and even created a video voters guide about the substance of these initiatives.

> Pennsylvania Cable Network (PCN) covered the 2010 elections by airing 20 gubernatorial debates, eight of which involved closely contested races. In the course of the year, PCN covered a grand total of 47 election-related events, only three of which ran on local broadcast stations.

“We’re a non-biased and unedited-surveillance form of journalism,” says Chris Long of WisconsinEye. News­papers, TV stations, and websites “don’t have enough reporters to look around the corner. Increasingly, we’re the eyes and ears of the people, in state Capitals.”

In 23 states, cable operators provide carriage for state Spans; in one state, satellite operators do.  In four states, the cable operators provide support akin to what they do for C-Span.

In the recommendations section, we suggest a national goal: a C-Span in every state. 

Each state has a different approach and there probably are many ways to achieve this.

Cable and satellite operators and other MVPDs should do more. Just as the cable industry concluded that C-Span would be both good for their industry and their country, we’d like to see MVPDs follow suit in the states – ideally following the C-Span model of providing financial support.  We also suggested that Congress consider an incentive: perhaps giving them regulatory relief from their leased access requirements.

It may be also be a sensible area for public TV to explore.  In several states, the public TV stations have creatively used one of their digital channels to create a home for state Spans. Finally, we have concluded that the cable law would enable states, if they chose, to designate state spans as PEG channels. This means Community Media Centers could potentially work with state spans to create homes for state spans.

What do you think of this idea?  How else might state spans or local C-Spans be encouraged?