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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Spokane

Public affairs TV network expanding

Richard Roesler Staff writer

OLYMPIA — The “fly on the wall” of state government is about to get a better view.

After a decade of airing gavel-to-gavel coverage of statehouse debate and Supreme Court arguments, Washington’s groundbreaking TVW on Monday broke a different kind of ground. The nonprofit public-affairs network is building and equipping a larger studio – paid for partly by you – to replace the converted bowling alley that’s long been the center of its coverage.

“We have demonstrated clearly that citizens will watch and appreciate what we provide,” said network President Cindy Zehnder.

TVW is now raising $3 million for its new building. State lawmakers this spring also agreed to kick in another $3 million for new cameras, computers and other equipment.

“The farther away you are from Olympia, the more vital TVW becomes,” said Gov. Christine Gregoire, who called the network “the biggest step forward in open government since the passage of the Open Meetings Law.”

Even with no broadcast capability – the network airs only through cable networks or over the Internet – TVW is in the homes of at least 3.6 million Washingtonians.

Not that the coverage is always riveting – the network’s unofficial slogan in Olympia is “Dare to be dull.” But no news broadcaster provides the same depth of government coverage, Zehnder said. And in a time of widespread voter apathy, she said, the network provides a way to build citizen involvement. In a recent independent Elway Poll, 20 percent of Washingtonians said they sometimes watch TVW. And visitors to its Web site have more than doubled in four years.

TVW went live in 1995, after proponents won approval from skeptical lawmakers, funding from corporations and free airtime from cable TV companies across the state.

“It took two years to get the political support it needed,” said Zehnder. Some lawmakers feared that full-time TV coverage would encourage blowhards. Others said the camera’s unblinking eye would discourage open discussion.

The network also had to walk a political tightrope to prevent accusations of favoring one party over the other. To help answer those concerns, early proponent Denny Heck – a former chief of staff for Democratic Gov. Booth Gardner – found an advocate in Senate Majority Leader Jeannette Hayner, R-Walla Walla.

When the remote-control cameras blinked to life that summer, TVW boasted the world’s most extensive robotic camera system. Today, 39 cameras are permanently mounted in a dozen meeting rooms across the capitol campus.

The first-ever broadcast – court arguments in a death-penalty case – was a first in more ways than one. Washington’s Supreme Court was the first in the nation to allow video cameras in the courtroom.

Today, TVW covers legislative hearings, statehouse debate, meetings and press conferences. It covered the governor’s inaugural ball in January – then sent a rented satellite truck to Wenatchee for two weeks to cover the court fight over Gregoire’s razor-thin election victory.

Most of the 20-person network’s budget comes from state taxpayers, through a legislative appropriation of about $2 million per year. Cable companies also donate about $4.5 million worth of free airtime per year.

The network fills a gap left by news broadcasters, Zehnder said.

“It’s very clear that the electronic media has pulled out of statehouses nationwide – and did years ago,” she said.

Still, the network operates under rules that no news station would agree to. For one thing, TVW’s cameras must always focus on the speaker. There are no shots to capture the smirking, eye-rolling, glaring – or pointed absence – of the opposing side in any debate.

“We don’t do reaction shots,” Zehnder said.

Some 25 states have similar networks, with another 10 in the works, according to the National Association of Public Affairs Networks.

All of TVW’s audio recordings since 1997 are available to anyone, for free, on the network’s online archive: The network also streams live video across the Internet. When Judge John Bridges issued his ruling in the Wenatchee case, more than 10,000 people were watching it on their computers.

With the new equipment, the network hopes to blur the line between watching government and participating in it. One senator, Pam Roach, recently held a hearing on live TV while taking e-mail testimony from citizens watching at home.

“Normally, it would be 50 or 100 people who have a chance to see the hearing,” Zehnder said. “Because we’re there, it’s 1.5 million people.”

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