SACRAMENTO — Television viewers are watching a heated legislative debate over whether to cut funding for the Coastal Commission or the Conservation Corps when suddenly the lawmakers vanish. The screen fills with canned film of the California Capitol, flags fluttering. And then there is an abrupt switch to Lexington, Ky., for "Festival '92, the Pony Club Adventure."
On another day, a committee hearing on automobile insurance seems to instantly transform into a Portuguese soccer match.
This is happening on one of California's more civic-minded cable systems, Sacramento's. Elsewhere in the state--most notably in much of Los Angeles--cable TV operators are offering viewers no Capitol coverage at all.
A few years ago, there were dreams of creating a California version of C-SPAN to provide TV coverage of state government and politics. Now, after two years of operation, it is obvious that the California Channel is only a pathetic imitation of the national network that offers junkies a veritable feast of congressional floor sessions, committee hearings, private conferences, round-table discussions and call-in shows.
C-SPAN operates continuously and is available in 59 million American homes, roughly 95% of those hooked to cable. The California Channel--originally called Cal-SPAN, but renamed when C-SPAN protested--operates only five hours per day weekdays and is plugged into 2.5 million homes, just 43% of the state's cable hookups.
"We're a lean operation; we've got to walk before we can run," says Paul Koplin, who manages the California Channel.
But Koplin and virtually everyone at the Capitol involved with the California Channel are frustrated with the product, which mainly is a result of bare-bones funding because of disappointing support from the cable industry.
The way it works is that both legislative houses, at public expense, transmit to the California Channel unedited, gavel-to-gavel telecasts of their floor sessions plus some committee activity. The nonprofit California Channel, located across the street, then uplinks the floor sessions and its pick of committee hearings to a satellite. It pays for the uplinking and satellite time. Cable operators downlink the programming and transmit it to viewers, paying the California Channel 2 1/4 cents per home per month.
This also basically is the way C-SPAN operates, except the national network is so widely supported by cable companies that it can produce original programming and stay on the air 24 hours.
The reason viewers who were watching the state lawmakers argue about spending priorities suddenly found ponies on their screen is that it was 4 p.m. and the California Channel was going off the air, being replaced by the Sports Channel in Sacramento. Something similar was happening in almost every community where the California Channel is carried.
And on many days, viewers may feel this is just as well. The channel, out of necessity, runs a lot of stale tapes. And, unlike C-SPAN, there are no analyses or other frills. Cable operators want it that way to keep down costs--if they want it at all.
Perhaps the best example of extremes about what operators want is in Los Angeles. Century Cable, with 154,000 subscribers from Santa Monica across the Westside to Sherman Oaks, repeats California Channel programming at night and produces its own interview shows and specials. By contrast, Continental Cable, the largest county operator with roughly 350,000 subscribers from Mid-Wilshire to El Segundo, does not carry the California Channel. There is no room, it says.
The consensus in the Capitol is that most cable operators would just as soon the California Channel went away. It is like an annoying gnat.
The fact is that one can make all the high-minded arguments about a healthy democracy needing an informed electorate, but this ignores the reality of our society also being a product of financial and political incentives.
Cable operators have a political incentive--often a mandate--to reserve channels for local government because franchises are controlled locally. State government years ago ceded this leverage.
The California Channel is a financial loser for cable operators, unlike premium channels such as HBO. And there appears to be no broad viewer demand to watch state government in action.
The vague industry promise is that within a few years, when new technology sends hundreds of channels into each home, operators will reserve one for the Capitol.
Meanwhile, notes Tracy Westen, a Los Angeles attorney who helped found the California Channel: "We have a C-SPAN appetite but a California budget."
So don't expect a C-SPAN-type series next year called "Road to the Statehouse."