By Larry Laughlin, editor, The NEFAC Report
The Maine Public Broadcasting Network is ready to put $300,000 into real-time, televised coverage of the state Senate and House to find out if there is an audience for the theater of state government.
The six-month Maine Capitol Connection project is slated to launch Feb.4, initially with up to five hours of daily coverage, live or recorded. At a time when partisan divide is the norm from Washington, D.C., to state capitals, the leaders in Augusta are behind this advance in government transparency.
“Somebody joked that this is the only thing the governor, Democrats and Republicans seem to agree on,” said Mal Leary, who’s closing his venerable Capitol News Service to be the managing editor and director of the coverage to be carried on a free channel provided by MPBN.
Asked how much interest there will be in the programming, Leary said, “I think we can only point to what C-SPAN has always said — ‘we’ll get a small but a high quality audience’.”
Maine would be only the second state in New England, after Connecticut, to offer viewers a live, guided look at government proceedings. The Connecticut Network, or CT-N, is one of only a handful nationwide to provide 24-hour operations and coverage of all three branches of government.
Mark Vogelzang, CEO and president of MPBN since January 2012 and previously CEO of Vermont Public Radio, said success will be measured by tracking viewership levels, taking surveys and analyzing member and viewer feedback.
“I suspect we will hear from the legislators directly; if they watch themselves in the evening; what their constituents are saying; are they fielding more informed calls and questions. All of those things should tell us if we are making an impact,” he said.
And how does Vogelzang think the project will affect legislative discourse?
“Transparency in government is always a good thing, of course. I would hope that legislative sessions will be more productive than usual, but time will tell on this one. The real point for the Capitol Connection channel is to provide a clear and unfiltered window to how one’s representative is representing us,” he said.
The feed into the MPBN system will come from cameras already in place in the Senate and House chambers and the Joint Standing Committee on Appropriations and Financial Affairs meeting room. More will be added later. The cameras currently provide no editorial direction or comment and can leave viewers unschooled in the legislative process confused.
The MPBN coverage will be carried on a free digital channel and provide what Leary termed “high-level commentary,” not what you’d get from an NFL play-by-play announcer but “context, so the viewer will understand what’s going on.”
“There are times, depending on what the motion on the floor is, when voting ‘yes’ can actually mean they’re killing a bill, which is the type of thing we’ll try to make clear for viewers,” Leary said.
“We’ll decide what we’ll cover,” he said. “We could do the House or the Senate live. It depends on who has the better agenda that day.”
Gov. Paul R. LePage, a Republican, is also behind the project. He tried unsuccessfully last year to end the state’s subsidy of MPBN, which he termed “corporate welfare,” but sees no contradiction here because money for the project will come from private donations and the network’s operating budget and not the state’s subsidy.
“The pilot program is entirely funded by MPBN out of our current fiscal year operating budget … We’re in the early stages of identifying businesses, individuals and foundations who might be interested in supporting this project by underwriting the Maine Capitol Connection,” Vogelzang said.
And after the initial funding is exhausted?
“Ideally we can find a mix of various funding sources, philanthropy, underwriting, MPBN, and the Legislature itself providing support for the service. We think it’s going to be attractive,” he said.
Paul Giguere, president and CEO of the Connecticut Public Affairs Network, the nonprofit parent of CT-N, said he has a staff of 30 and an annual budget of $2.5 million allocated from cable use tax revenue. CPAN launched CT-N in March 1999 to provide General Assembly coverage. Maine is about to take its first steps in that direction.
“In our first year we only did four hours a day of legislative sessions. Now it’s 24 hours a day,” Giguere said. He also notes that CT-N’s success was due in part to good timing.
“The state budget was in surplus and there were legislative leaders in place who were very interested in increasing transparency,” he said.
Giguere also is president of the National Association of Public Affairs Networks, whose members must meet a set of best practices that include round-the-clock accessibility, coverage of the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government and independent editorial control. He said the state networks have various funding mechanisms in place “but editorial independence is absolutely key to this.”
“We take it very seriously that editorial decisions are made in this office and not across the street,” he said, referring to the capitol.