California soon will be pushed back a huge step when cable TV stops telecasting sausage-making in the state Capitol.
You recall the old bromide about laws and sausages first voiced by 19th century German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. To paraphrase: If you’re squeamish, don’t watch either being made.
Cable TV — specifically its California Channel — has been the public’s eyes and ears on Capitol sausage-making for more than two decades.
But now the cable industry, which is the Cal Channel’s sole financier, is pulling the plug on this cheap, mini-version of national C-SPAN.
Cable and satellite affiliates bankroll C-SPAN’s nonprofit operation, which costs around $70 million annually. The Cal Channel’s tab is a measly $1.2 million, costing each cable subscriber just 2 cents a month.
C-SPAN features gavel-to-gavel coverage of Congress, plus a whole lot of other stuff that’s the public’s business, including White House press briefings and presidential campaigning.
The Cal Channel, which is received by every cable subscriber statewide, is a dwarfed replica of C-SPAN. It, too, carries unbiased gavel-to-gavel coverage of legislative floor sessions — alternating between the Senate and Assembly — and some major committee hearings.
It telecasts gubernatorial news conferences if the governor uses the Capitol’s main Q&A room, which Gov. Gavin Newsom rarely does. He prefers his own office or a campaign-style photo-op somewhere. So he has failed to take advantage of the Cal Channel while it existed.
The Cal Channel also televises a few issues conferences and sometimes a talking-heads show. For example, John Howard, editor of the online Capitol Weekly, occasionally gathers other reporters at a popular legislative watering hole to chat on camera about politics.
“I have no idea what the viewership is,” Howard says. “Whether there are any people who pay attention, I don’t know. I could be talking into a dead mic.”
He hates to see the Cal Channel clicked off for good.
“It’s about government transparency,” Howard says. “It’s democracy, for God’s sake.”
Cal Channel has announced it will go black on Oct. 16. That will make it even more difficult for interested citizens to keep tabs on what their elected representatives are doing in Sacramento — how they’re spending tax dollars and making decisions about all sorts of issues including welfare, water, higher education and homelessness.
It’s coming at a time of declining news media coverage of the state Capitol. There hasn’t been a full-time TV reporter here in years. Newspaper staffs have dramatically declined.
The Cal Channel’s board of directors, made up of cable company heads, offered a lame excuse for shutting off the cameras. It pointed to a 2016 ballot proposition approved by voters.
Proposition 54’s main provision required that all bills be placed on the internet for public viewing 72 hours before the Legislature votes on final passage. That didn’t provide the board a hook. But a secondary provision did. It required the Legislature to record all its public hearings and post complete videos on the internet within 24 hours.
“With everything going on the internet, it made our efforts duplicative,” Cal Channel President John Hancock says.
Baloney. Not everyone goes on the internet to watch government coverage. If it were available on TV, many would rather watch there. But don’t blame Hancock. He’s just repeating his bosses’ cop-out.
The cable board long has wanted to dump the little-watched Cal Channel, considered a non-revenue producing nuisance. Anyway, board members generally are ideologically conservative and don’t particularly like broadcasting the liberal Legislature’s politics, I’m told. And all cable has been losing viewers to other platforms — Dish, Netflix, the Internet — and the Cal Channel doesn’t help.
“The California Legislature is never going to draw a bigger audience than ‘American Idol’ or Major League Baseball,” says Dan Schnur, a former political operative who teaches at USC and UC Berkeley.
“But that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be a viewing option for people who feel strongly about abortion or gun ownership or vaccines or homelessness. They aren’t going to watch the Cal Channel every night, but it ought to be there for them when they need it.”
Can anything be done?
“The governor is very supportive of the Cal Channel,” spokesman Nathan Click says. “He’s exploring options.”
Secretary of State Alex Padilla intends to store all the channel’s footage in the state archives for posterity.
Assembly Speaker Pro Tem Kevin Mullin (D-South San Francisco), who presides over house floor sessions, is the only legislator who seems concerned. He’s trying to figure out a way to “retain at least a modicum of programming.”
Moreover, he says, “I think this is an opportunity to do something better than the Cal Channel. It has a lot of regurgitated programming, lots of rehash. Maybe we can do something more robust.
“It’s just a bad moment for democracy in California to have fewer eyeballs on state government. It needs to have more attention.”
But, he adds, “I don’t have a solution. I’m going to work on it this fall.”
By that time, Cal Channel will be kaput. And the Legislature knocks off for the year in two weeks.
Two possible solutions:
One, lean on cable to rethink. After all, the Legislature can write laws regulating the industry.
Two, $1.2 million isn’t even budget dust in a $215-billion state spending plan. Grab enough money to establish a new, improved, independently run Cal Channel — one a tad closer to C-SPAN.
Keep a light on the sausage-making.