This government TV channel dares to be really good

On Seattle cable channel 21, some of the area's best coverage of civic issues comes from from an unlikely source – City Hall.
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On Seattle cable channel 21, some of the area's best coverage of civic issues comes from from an unlikely source – City Hall.

Today, the pace of "revolutions" in communications is so fast that it's getting hard to keep track. But pause on this: If you remember the last time the Huskies won the Rose Bowl, you probably remember a time when there were a handful of TV stations, few cell phones, no Web browsing, and no text messaging.

You might also remember coverage by local commercial TV stations of public affairs and culture. But that's all just about gone from channels 4, 5, 7, and 13. (Noteworthy exception.)

Surprisingly, a counter-revolution is under way from the most unlikely place to find interesting programing: government itself. If you're a news and government junky, or just passionate about our city, the Seattle Channel (cable 21) is the place to watch. Its companion Web site is an increasingly valuable repository of videos on topics ranging from the long and often dull (City Council meetings) to excellent mini-documentaries on critical issues. To steal from an old Seattle Times slogan, it's news you can't get anywhere else. The station is widely recognized as one of the nation's best municipal channels, winning a slug of local Emmys and, this month, the Excellence in Government Programming award from the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors.

This revolution of sorts began around 2001, when a group called the Seattle Commission on Electronic Communication recommended [1.6 MB PDF] a new "democracy portal" by revamping the old TVSea municipal station and pairing it with a Web site that would provide electronic tools for citizens to observe government, access information, and share commentary. (Double suck-up alert: Crosscut Publisher David Brewster served on that panel, which was chaired by Crosscut contributor Steve Clifford.)

The city moved down that path by setting aside funds derived by the tax on cable service. Today, the channel employs 17 people and numerous freelancers on a budget of $2.5 million a year, none of that from the city's general fund.

Credit for the transformation goes to General Manager Gary Gibson, formerly of public KCTS-TV (9), and staffers such as C.R. Douglas, Beth Hester, Kelly Guenther, Nancy Guppy, Eric Liu, and others.

There's more to do. Some shows need better production quality. The channel's Web links need to reach deeper; for example, there should be links to briefing materials read by council members during public meetings – an idea the commission suggested six years ago. Viewing online video, the great future, is glitchy. On my connection, I keep getting pauses, time outs, and messages that "you may be experiencing network problems." We need a little more revolution there, please.

You might question, and rightly, the entire notion of government-run journalism. A misnomer? Sure. On the Seattle Channel, you're not going to see crusades or exposes. That must come from truly independent news organizations. But you do get detailed, balanced presentations of issues on the public agenda. Gibson and his staff have achieved a pretty good result in a challenging environment, navigating the political thicket of council-mayor tension. From windowless offices in the basement of City Hall, they produce a growing library of raw and interpreted information that's essential to our understanding of issues.

In time, when "on demand" truly works, you'll have a smoother experience viewing videos of that documentary on the World's Fair, the police chief speaking to the City Council, a feature on Uwajimaya, the mayor talking about the Monorail in 2005, a heartbreaking mini-documentary on Multiple Sclerosis by director John Jeffcoat (Outsourced), or that four-hour City Council budget hearing last November.

It's all there. It's a browser's delight, like a reading room at a fine library. Congrats to Gibson and company for the latest award.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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O. Casey Corr

O. Casey Corr is a Seattle native, author and marketing communications consultant.