A proposed State Civic Network would offer live and archived coverage of every legislative hearing, appellate court argument and more in a bid to open Connecticut’s government to greater public scrutiny.
Calling it “a next generation vision,” the change has the potential to greatly increase the transparency of government decision-making, said Paul Giguere, president and chief executive officer of the Connecticut Public Affairs Network that operates Connecticut Network or CT-N.
The proposal to turn the CT-N into a more comprehensive civic network would ax the annual $3.2 million state payment and instead shift the operation’s cost to cable television subscribers, who would each pay about $5-a-year more.
Sen. Steve Cassano, D-Manchester, said it’s a small price to pay to increase substantially the visibility of the legislative process.
Cassano, co-chairman of the Government Administration and Elections Committee, said the proposal’s adoption would represent “a sea change for us” and would make it possible for people to see for themselves all the work that goes into crafting legislation.
“I would hope that it’s one of those things that would pass unanimously,” Cassano said.
By covering every hearing and appellate court case, the new network would “create the opportunity for the public to better engage” with what’s going on in each branch of government, Giguere said.
The proposed change is included in a bill slated for a public hearing Monday before Cassano’s committee. If the legislature approves it and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy supports it, the new network could be in place by November.
Giguere said the shift would rely on a federal law that requires cable television providers to carry the new public affairs network. The Public Utilities Regulatory Authority that regulates cable TV in the state would set the rates, probably increasing the average bill by about 40 cents a month to cover the costs of increased coverage of Connecticut’s government.
Giguere said the single television channel would include information about live events also streaming on the network’s website, which would also include extensive online archives and the ability to watch and share shorter clips. “Technology now makes so much more possible,” he said.
He said the way people consume the news has changed dramatically since CT-N began operation in 1999, at the time on the cutting edge of bringing state government directly to citizens.
Now, though, its robotic cameras in hearing rooms are aging, said Joe Patriss, director of engineering and production for CT-N, and an upgrade that began in 2010 is still underway.
Patriss said, though, that the control room in the Legislative Building Office has the capacity to feed higher quality video to the cable networks as soon as the change is made. “We’re ready to go,” he said.
Giguere said that technology improvements eyed under the new plan would allow up to 15 live streamed events at the same time rather than the two currently possible. It would also ensure that every legislative hearing, Supreme Court case, appellate court oral argument and most executive branch meetings would be shown as they take place, he said.
In addition, all of the footage would be archived online and available quickly to anyone who wants to see it, he said.
The new network, which would have a guaranteed slot in the channels offered to all subscribers, would be operated by a nonprofit, according to the bill’s terms. It is not a given that Giguere’s 46-employee organization would get the contract.
“We may not be the nonprofit that runs this,” Giguere said. “That’s the risk.”
An oversight panel would be created to serve as the link between the new network and the state.
Giguere said he doesn’t see any downside to making the change. It would reduce the cost for taxpayers while providing substantially more coverage of public affairs, he said.
Cable subscribers would pay only a little more, he added, only about the price of “a piece of cheese at Burger King” each month — a reference to the fast food chain’s 40-cent charge to put a slice of processed cheese on a Whopper.
In addition to increasing coverage of government meetings, Giguere said the new network would also have a nightly show recapping events and providing some context for what is going on at the many hearings and meetings that cameras will record.
Technology improvements will make it possible for control booths at the nonprofit’s headquarters to operate remote cameras and microphones so that fewer people are required to show any particular event, though the overall size of the operation would obviously grow.
Giguere said he anticipates “a continuing evolution” of what the network would do as it seizes on new technology to find ways to increase citizen engagement with government. “Whatever the next generation is, we need to be a part of it,” he said.
He said his hope is that as more people see the inner workings of their government, they’ll come to appreciate it more and to recognize more deeply what it means to have a representative democracy.
“We have to get past this notion that it’s us against them,” he said. “What we’ve lost sight of is that they are us.”