TVW legislative coverage could suffer blackouts
by John Stang
Could TVW suffer blackouts?
If you get the hankering to watch the Washington Legislature in 2015, Greg Lane will cross his fingers that one of his TVW camera's won't go dead.
Think of TVW as a Washington-style hybrid of C-SPAN and PBS. It is a televised and Internet wrinkle to direct democracy. It is also an analog window trying to serve a digital world.
The PBS-style portion — funded by private donations — covers public affairs programming, which appears on cable networks around the state. King County residents can find it on cable channel 23. The C-SPAN side comes from a contract with state, which requires the nonprofit TVW to televise or webcast live broadcasts of all legislative hearings, briefings, votes, floor debates and press conferences and keep the webcasts on permanent file. That way, a working stiff in Everett or Yakima or Spokane — or Seattle — can watch his or her Legislature in action at his or her convenience. A shopkeeper in Vancouver can watch experts or regular citizens testify and every legislator deliver his or her piece.
Right now, TVW should have 49 individual cameras mounted on ceilings and walls on at least eight hearing rooms, plus the Senate and House chambers and elsewhere. Technicians behind-the-scenes punch buttons to instantly zoom cameras in and out on the Capitol building's 147 Senate and House members.
In the past two years, eight cameras have died due to failing parts, and the only two reserve cameras have been installed, said Lane, TVW's president. So, TVW is already short of the cameras as it plans for coverage of next year's session.
These cameras were bought mostly in 1995, when TVW began live coverage. The equipment is old and replacements parts are hard to find. And the Capitol complex and TVW don't have the broadband capacity to simultaneously handle old analog and new digital technologies, so phasing in one system while phasing out the other is not doable. The bottom line is that the system will have to be replaced in one swoop and not gradually in phases, Lane said.
Roughly 80 percent of TVW's annual $2.2 million operating budget — with 21 year-round employees plus a few extra during legislative sessions — comes from the corporation's contract with the state. However, replacing the camera system is a $5.2 million capital expense with $2.84 million budgeted to come from state capital appropriations. The rest will come from private donations. The $2.84 million state segment was part of the Senate's proposed $166 million supplemental capital budget for 2014-2015. However, the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus then unanimously decided not to pass a supplemental capital budget for 2014-2015, which included TVW's camera-replacement money.
"This has been a request from the Secretary of State for several years," said Jason Mercier, an analyst with the Washington Policy Center and an advocate for openness and public access to government. For various reasons, the TVW camera money has never survived the final budgetary cuts.
Mercier said the potential equipment failures will lead to the public not being able to watch some committee work during the 2015 session. "Hopefully, we'll just have to deal with it for just one session," he said.
Lane said state money for the new camera network will likely show up in the state's 2015-2017 capital budget. However, he expects cameras to fail before new digital equipment can be bought and installed, meaning existing cameras will be shifted to fill gaps and decisions will have to be made on where gaps in coverage should be allowed.
"I can't tell how many cameras are going to fail. I can't predict when they will fail. The trend indicates we will have more failures," Lane said.
While television ratings are not kept, website hits have been tracked. In 2008, TVW tallied roughly 500,000 hits on its Web recordings. In 2013, that number was roughly 5 million.
"We have to have transparency in government to have a healthy process," Lane said. "The vast majority of people can't come to Olympia during the day. … This give the government some accountability."
But watching the government, a right a lot of people have gotten used to exercising, is going to get a lot harder until the Legislature acts.
For exclusive coverage of the state government, check out Crosscut's Under the Dome page.