Thursday, December 5, 2013
AUGUSTA — Lawmakers have given the green light to a new digital television channel that the Maine Public Broadcasting Network will devote to coverage of the State House.
The MPBN State House Channel is modeled after the Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network, or C-SPAN, that offers live coverage of Congress. MPBN will use existing closed-circuit audio and video feeds at the State House to broadcast sessions in both the House and Senate as well as committee hearings on legislation with significant state impact.
The network is planning a six-month pilot to test interest in the programming, which will be free and broadcast on one of MPBN's digital channels. Officials at MPBN say the estimated $250,000 to $300,000 cost will be covered by the network's 2013 operating budget, which is funded by private donations. Officials say the program will not receive any state subsidies.
Mark Vogelzang, president of MPBN, said Wednesday that he was unsure how the network will fund the channel after the start-up funds are used. However, he said, the initial allocation should be enough to carry the station beyond the six-month pilot period. Additionally, he said, the network would evaluate other funding mechanisms if the channel is successful.
The program will be similar to those created in several other states that are designed to shine a light on state government.
The MPBN proposal was unanimously approved Wednesday by the Legislative Council, the Legislature's administrative arm that comprises 10 state lawmakers. Democratic lawmakers, who hold majorities in the House and Senate, control six seats, Republicans four.
There appears to be bipartisan support for the proposal. Supporters say the new network fills a needed gap in State House coverage and will bring transparency to state policy-making. Executives at MPBN said that the channel is overdue given C-SPAN's coverage of Congress and the fact that many municipal meetings are carried on free cable access channels.
"More sunlight on state government is a good thing," said Vogelzang, who added that the programming decisions would be made by the station, not any particular power in state government.
House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, who chairs the Legislative Council, said in a press statement that "MPBN's proposal already has strong bipartisan support from Republicans and the governor. It would be an area where we can find common ground to better serve Maine people."
"I am often asked about what goes on in Augusta. This proposal is a direct connection from the State House into people's homes," said Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland. "This will allow for greater transparency and accountability between lawmakers and the people we serve."
In its written proposal, MPBN said that the channel could go live as early as February. The channel will show up to five hours of live and recorded footage of State House proceedings each day during the legislative session.
Veteran State House journalist Mal Leary will become the managing editor and director of the program. Leary, who runs Capitol News Service, has been covering the State House for more than 30 years.
Leary, president of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition and a director for the National Freedom of Information Coalition, said the MPBN channel is consistent with his goal of bringing transparency to state government.
Leary said that his new job with MPBN will mean the end of the Capitol News Service, which has provided written and radio news to several Maine media outlets.
Networks in other states have attempted to arranged deals with cable and satellite providers to fund the program with a surcharge on cable television bills. However, according to reports by the Federal Communications Commission, there is a reluctance among providers to participate.
According to the FCC, the Maine channel would become one of at least seven channels devoted to coverage of state government nationally. The Ohio Channel, established in 1996, has non-stop coverage of state house activity, state Supreme Court cases and elections.
A similar channel exists in Alaska -- called 360 North -- and is operated by that state's public television station and funded by a grant from the City of Juneau and private donations. WisconsinEye is privately funded, while the Pennsylvania Cable Network receives 84 percent of it funding from cable subscriber fees, according to the FCC.
Similar stations exist in Michigan and Connecticut.
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at: