HARTFORD — While Connecticut and a handful of states are scaling back broadcasts of governmental proceedings to help cut costs, many others are pushing ahead with wide-ranging programming that can include everything from gavel-to-gavel coverage of legislative sessions to a documentary on managing wolves in Washington state.
The Rhode Island General Assembly, which owns and operates the state-funded Capitol Television, has upgraded its operations. With a staff of 16 and a budget of $1.69 million, it can cover five legislative-related events at once using new, robotic cameras. The coverage is streamed online and appears on a public access TV channel and a 24-hour high-definition channel.
“Rhode Island is big on open government, transparency, so they actually invested in us a few years ago to update, so we could televise even more hearings,” said Derek Hayes, the general manager of Capitol TV. Hayes’ team recently went on the road to cover Senate hearings across the state on a proposal to build a new stadium for the Pawtucket Red Sox minor league baseball team.
Legislative leaders and staff in Connecticut are trying to determine the short- and long-term future of the state’s cable TV and online public affairs network. This month, its independent, nonprofit vendor, the Connecticut Public Affairs Network, announced it was terminating its agreement to operate the Connecticut Television Network, citing devastating state budget cuts and “encroachments on our editorial independence.”
CPAN and state lawmakers have been at odds over the level of coverage dedicated to the General Assembly versus the other branches of state government and other programming, such as a now-defunct public affairs show.
“No one wants to see a disruption in service from CT-N. It plays a role in the legislative process and in heightening public awareness. But the state simply does not have the resources it once had and, like many other publicly funded operations, CT-N will have to make adjustments,” said House Republican Leader Themis Klarides. “CT-N needs to refocus on the core functions it was designed to provide,” she said, suggesting that’s gavel-to-gavel coverage of House and Senate sessions and mostly legislative hearings and events.
As a loop of reruns now airs on TV, the office that runs the state Capitol complex has been meeting with entities such as Connecticut Public Television about possibly running CT-N until the fiscal year ends June 30, according to James Tracy, executive director of the Office of Legislative Management. Meanwhile, Klarides said Thursday that lawmakers never intended for CT-N to be off the air and that some coverage will be back on Monday.
Ultimately, there are plans to issue a five-year contract to a permanent operator this spring. It’s unclear what the level of coverage of the legislative and other branches of government will be.
“We need to try and figure out how much we can get done with the budget we have,” Tracy said. Representatives of the Connecticut Public Affairs Network had complained their operating budget was cut from about $2.8 million last year to $1.2 million in the new state budget, calling it “simply unworkable.”
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, there are live webcasts or television broadcasts of legislative proceedings available from at least one chamber in all 50 states. While many provide webcasts of committee hearings, at least 30 states and the Washington, D.C. broadcast some proceedings on television.
Funding arrangements and organizational structures for such coverage vary widely. While some rely on state budget allotments, others receive funding from other sources such as charitable donations or fees on cable TV bills. The Pennsylvania Cable Network says it receives more than 85 percent of its funding from cable TV companies, but no tax dollars.
New Jersey shut down its state-owned public television network in 2011 amid state budget concerns, turning the operations over to New York’s public TV station. The Oklahoma Educational Television Authority has seen its budget dramatically slashed in recent years due to a slumping economy, forcing the authority to scale back its state and local news coverage. Massachusetts House and Senate sessions that were once shown years ago on a Boston public TV station are now limited to a live webcast on the legislature’s website and an internal TV feed inside the statehouse.
In contrast, TVW, the Washington state public affairs channel, provides gavel-to-gavel coverage of floor debates and committee hearings, as well as its own programming, including recent documentaries about the wolves, teacher compensation and drone regulations.
Associated Press writer Jennifer McDermott in Providence, Rhode Island, contributed to this report.