Having grown into a cluster of cable channels, C-SPAN has become a semi-official American institution. Not because it offers the most consistently fascinating, exciting programming, of course --- but because it engages viewers with what you might call "reality-check" TV. Think of routines like the latest "White House Press Briefing With Ari Fleischer" or "gavel to gavel" coverage of the US Senate. Were it not for coverage by C-SPAN and even newer media, live or taped, such things might evaporate, lose their flavor, or vanish into an archive.
You can watch this small "d" democratic media phenomenon close to home, as well. So many local government meetings and speeches now are on cable, it seems the "public square" has been reformatted into the rectangular screen. Across the nation, local cable stations broadcast speeches and routine proceedings from town boards, county legislatures, planning commissions, and other bodies, down to the metaphorical dog-catcher.
Such stations, set aside on the cable spectrum expressly to bring local government proceedings into the living room, are found in cities as different as Concord, California, and Indianapolis, Indiana. And some are very close to home, too. Take the small city of Lockport, Rochester's Erie Canal neighbor 70 miles to the west. Lockport Community Television, officially described as a "not-for-profit PEG (Public, Educational, and Government)," operates three cable stations, one of them a designated government channel.
LCTV brags it's "one of the most active access centers for its size in the country." And the published schedule backs this up: Significant blocks of time are devoted to meetings of the Niagara County Legislature, the Lockport Common Council, and the Lockport Town Board. There are also state-oriented offerings like Assembly Update and This Month With Governor Pataki; and national feeds like Navy/Marine News and NASA TV.
Turn the dial to Rochester, though, and you get the low-cal menu.
We do have a government-access channel here, of course. Cable Channel 12 --- maintained under an agreement between City Hall and WXXI Public Broadcasting, and offered through Time-Warner --- is reserved for government-related programming around the clock, seven days a week. And from the published schedule at www.twrochester.com, you assume that's what you're getting. At www.wxxi.org, however, you find that the schedule, through the day and evening, includes only a smattering of actual local-government business.
What fills up all those time slots, then? Mostly PBS offerings --- and re-treads. A large chunk of the daytime is taken up with PBS You, a "program service totally devoted to YOU and your learning needs," according to a PBS description. The list of PBS You programs includes such things as Faith & Reason, In Julia's Kitchen With Master Chefs, and Think Tank With Ben Wattenberg. Or look at Channel 12 in late primetime, when the adult, civic-minded audience should be most accessible: At 9 p.m., there's the Lehrer NewsHour, which also runs on WXXI Channel 21 at 7 p.m. At 10 p.m. comes the BBC World News, which also runs earlier on Channel 21. And at 10:30 p.m. is another PBS repeat: Nightly Business Report.
"The majority [of programming] is stuff WXXI takes from its library," says city councilmember Brian Curran. "A lot of what is on the air is filler: national parks in Texas, cooking shows."
"People have asked for more entertainment," says Curran. But Channel 12, he says, should be zeroing in "on important public goals." (A WXXI spokesperson referred our call for comment to Gary Walker, vice president for TV; Walker did not respond.)
Why doesn't Channel 12 further such public goals? Money is one factor, says Curran. The city, he says, spends around $160,000 per year now on the channel. (The figure includes the cost of some "content" the city passes along to WXXI.). But his "ballpark estimate" is that a station with "more substantial local programming" would run $500,000 a year.
A boost in spending is unlikely now, given the city's current and anticipated budget problems. Still, would City Hall ever explore converting Channel 12 to the C-SPAN or Lockport Community Television model?
Curran says the possibility of doing just this came up when the WXXI arrangement was brainstormed. "Apparently it's technically feasible," he says. The city, he says, would just have to get the proper video equipment and hire someone to operate it. He adds the expected footnote: "If the budget were looking more stable..."
Looking over the past few years, Councilmember Tim Mains recalls his own efforts to move the issue along.
"I kept pushing us to rethink the relationship [and] what government-access should be about," he says. "It was like dragging people kicking and screaming to the table." (There certainly is inertia: Mains says the "long-standing relationship" between the city and WXXI "was first suggested during the Ryan administration.")
Nevertheless, not long ago, Mains thought he and other councilmembers had an agreement to broaden Channel 12's goals. He says he was looking for $300,000 to $350,000 to fund various improvements. "That fell apart when we had a bad budget year last year," he says. But the question is still on table: As Mains says, the deal with WXXI technically expired last year, and a new deal will have to be finalized quite soon.
In any event, what improvements are possible? "We talked about expanding the message boards" on Channel 12, Mains says. Thought was given, he says, to installing cameras in the council chamber --- for covering proceedings of city commissions as well as council meetings. But the cameras "appeared as a scary proposition to a few of my colleagues," he says.
Mains sees no great harm in running PBS repeats on Channel 12. After all, he says, some viewers have work schedules that make it hard for them to watch, say, the NewsHour's first run of the evening. "We get high-quality broadcasts" from WXXI, he says, but we're not getting enough access to city government. "We're tapping only a fraction of the interest in government access," Mains says. Channel 12, he says, "should be about promoting better citizens" who are aware of "what government is doing on their behalf."
Which way to go now? "We can define [Channel 12] any way we want," says Mains. The channel, for example, could be put under the umbrella of Rochester Community Television, along with the community-access Channel 15. "That is the model used in some communities," says Mains. But such a shift, he says, would require RCTV to provide "a higher quality signal."
Does the demand exist for local C-SPAN type of coverage, under that or any other umbrella? The indications are mixed. "We did a survey a bunch of years ago," says Mains. But "people told us they wanted to see more 'uninterrupted movies.'"
Local media activists have been watching the evolution of government access for a long while.
"Public access has always been the poor nephew here," says Ron Linville, a volunteer with Metro Justice's TV Dinner, a long-running political show that now appears on community-access Channel 15.
"The airwaves are going to waste" in Rochester, Linville says. He adds that TV Dinner staff have offered their service for council meetings, and the like. "We would tape it, and they could air it on Channel 12," he says.
But some restructuring may have to come first: "Personally, I think all three 'PEG' channels should be housed at RCTV," says TV Dinner coordinator Nancy Rosin, who's worked on a grant-funded video history of the Rochester Public Market. (Rosin adds that she and TV Dinner are getting more and more involved with Rochester Indymedia, part of an independent, decentralized, global network that's bypassing the commercial and "official" media alike.)
Whatever lies ahead for Channel 12, the question of demand will be crucial. But quantifying demand means putting it in meaningful context. Just how many people have to show up to demonstrate a compelling public interest?
Brian Curran hints that the answer doesn't reduce to raw numbers. "It surprises me [how] people tune in to unpredictable shows," he says. You may get only two percent of the overall TV audience, he says --- but you're still reaching thousands of people.