Have you heard of CT-N? It’s that channel you flip past which is sometimes showing speakers droning on at hearings, and sometimes showing video of the empty senate chamber while classical music plays. Thanks to a debate over how to fund the network, people have been asking: do we really need them?
We absolutely do.
CT-N, so often the only outlet for people to watch debates at the Capitol, is rarely the subject of those debates. But this session a bill that would change the way the network is funded has drawn the critical eye of budget and economy conscious legislators and commentators.
Basically what the bill would do is create something called a State Civic Network that would broadcast what CT-N does now, but also stream just about everything that happens at the Capitol and more. It would be funded by adding a fee to the bills of cable subscribers.
This seems straightforward enough, especially given that the legislature currently funds CT-N out of the General Fund. The change would allow taxpayer-funded public affairs programming to continue without adding to the state budget deficit.
Many public affairs networks similar to CT-N fund their programming through cable subscriber fees and donations from cable companies. The Pennsylvania Cable Network, The California Channel, and C-SPAN, which is what CT-N is based on, are a few notable examples.
But, because there’s never been a good idea that someone didn’t like, there are people who have trouble with this.
Paul Cianelli of the New England Cable & Telecommunications Association called the idea discriminatory because only cable subscribers would pay for it. “This is a cable subscriber tax bill and cable subscribers should be furious about this,” he said.
Cable companies also said that it would cost much more than the $0.40 per subscriber to operate a public affairs network, which is why several state representatives and senators professed worry about the potential cost. Sen. Michael McLachlan, R-Danbury, cited the “budget environment” as a reason not to support it, and Rep. David Alexander, D-Enfield, worried about the negative effect on his constituents.
The idea that this is a tax is fairly ridiculous on the face of it, especially considering that the legislature currently funds CT-N with taxpayer dollars. The burden would be shifted away from the legislature and onto cable companies, who would then pass it on to subscribers as a fee. It’s essentially a wash.
But the oddest comment came from Ken Dixon of the Connecticut Post, who dismissed CT-N as the “propaganda arm of the Connecticut General Assembly.”
I don’t know about that. I kind of figured a propaganda arm would have better graphics, and not highlight how blotchy the carpet is in the senate chamber all the time.
In fact, I can’t think of anything that makes the legislature look worse than actually televising it.
The point of this kind of public affairs programming seems both obvious and elusive. We want to be able to do things like watch public hearings and see legislators debate, even if we seldom actually do so. Openness and transparency are essential features of democracy.
But we might question whether something like this has outlived its usefulness. Does something like a dedicated cable channel make sense when we could just stream it with our phones? Should it exist even when people aren’t watching?
The new version of CT-N will exist mainly online, and will have the capability to stream up to 15 live events at once. It does seem to be evolving with the times, which is excellent news. In fact, it may make more sense to ask Internet service providers to fund public affairs programming, which would likely be much more fair than asking the same of cable subscribers.
And I am quite certain that people do watch, perhaps more than we think. I watch. Maybe you do, too. And even if we may not watch live, just the fact that an impartial third party has a digital video record of government proceedings is a comfort. The very fact that they exist, that a camera is turned on and recording, makes a difference even when there’s nobody at the other end. It opens up the government, even if only just a little bit, so that the people can see inside.
It may lead to grandstanding, certainly. But it also might just make the government more honest. That’s worth a little extra in fees. I hope the legislature ignores the naysayers and passes this bill.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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