January 9, 2013

Bill Nemitz: State House drama is made for TV

By Bill Nemitz bnemitz@pressherald.com

As the 126th Maine Legislature lumbers into action this week, let the record show that Democrats and Republicans alike already agree on one thing.

They all want to be on television.

Not to worry -- we're not talking about one of those over-hyped, bottom-of-the-barrel reality shows. (Although "Lawmakers Gone Wild" would undoubtedly give "Toddlers and Tiaras" a run for its money.)

No, sir, this is serious stuff. Starting Feb. 4, the Maine Capitol Connection Channel will begin broadcasting live from the State House -- from the daily proceedings in the House and Senate to the endless hearings before the Joint Committee on Appropriations and Financial Affairs to whatever else catches the eye of Mal Leary, the fledgling channel's managing editor and director.

"It's great fun because one of the things I've been a great advocate for, outside of journalism all this time, is open government," Leary said Tuesday. "And this kind of puts the two together."

OK, so "great fun" may be a bit of an overstatement. But hey, you don't spent 37 years covering Augusta, as Leary has, without developing some affinity for the place most Mainers love to hate.

The Maine Public Broadcasting Network's decision to launch the channel, with the unanimous blessings of Gov. Paul LePage and the Legislative Council, could not come at a better time.

Maine's state government is divided between a Democrat-controlled Legislature and a Republican governor -- meaning there will be plenty of opportunity for drama.

At the same time, Maine is awash in folks who know a lot less than they think they do about how the Legislature actually works -- meaning there will be plenty of opportunity for public enlightenment.

The question is, will anyone actually take the time to watch?

"We're never going to approach commercial television newscast or 'Downton Abbey' numbers," conceded Mark Vogelzang, president of MPBN. Still, "if the right people are watching and it does have an impact on the public policy debate, then that's a win -- even if it has a very small audience."

Vogelzang said the State House channel will fill a longstanding gap between cable public-access channels, which provide a real-time window into the workings of local government, and C-SPAN, which has kept Congress and the federal government under its watchful eye since 1979.

"But people couldn't figure out what was going on in Augusta," said Vogelzang. "That's when I got the feeling that it's high time MPBN stepped in and did this."

The new channel provides a natural niche for Leary, a longtime leader of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition who for the past 12 years has owned and operated the print/broadcast Capitol News Service.

In the fall (after having heart bypass surgery, no less), Leary, 62, agreed to give up his one-man news operation and launch the all-state government, all-the-time news channel -- making Maine the eighth state to offer such gavel-to-gavel coverage.

Parts of the system are already in place -- House and Senate proceedings will be televised via state-owned cameras that were installed five years ago for online streaming. (The Maine Capitol Connection Channel will be transmitted over the air and via cable.)

But MPBN's three fixed cameras in the Appropriations Committee hearing room -- reflecting Leary's long-held belief that "budget is policy" -- will be a first. As will the "floating camera" dispatched each day to a news conference, rally or other event deemed worthy of statewide consumption.

And here, there and everywhere will be Leary, explaining what's happening as the House recesses for party caucuses, filling the downtimes with interviews and other pre-recorded features and otherwise drawing on his decades of experience as dean of the State House press corps.

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