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Wednesday, Sep 18 1996
Un-Media Rising
For the severely civic-minded, or those who simply prefer their public affairs programming effectively untouched by human hands, a parallel video universe is fitfully unscrolling on the nether reaches of cable TV. Like the zines and Web pages being churned out by the DIY crowd, this unmediated media offers another "unblinking eye" to watch politicians at work.

In California, the offerings range from broadcasts of state legislative proceedings to local city council meetings and, scariest of all, weekly chat shows by city mayors with Oprah fantasies. The most mature statewide source for this kind of politics in the raw is the California Channel, where unedited footage from the floor of the state Capitol mirrors the video verite closet tours and beer can collections sprouting on the Web. A 5-year-old operation financed by a cable-industry consortium, it is already banging up against the harsh mechanics of the crowded media universe.

In August, during a live and unusually riveting broadcast of a state Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on a bill to prohibit same-sex marriages, the channel abruptly vanished from the airwaves in midsession. A conspiracy? Not in the usual sense, but nonetheless a cautionary tale about leaving provocative and meaningful civil discourse to the tender mercies of good Samaritans.

"The phones were ringing off the hook, from San Diego, Santa Monica, and San Francisco. People were livid," says John Hancock, California Channel president.

As Hancock patiently explained to those callers, the Cal Channel, which is carried by 101 cable systems throughout the state (with a reach of 4.7 million of the state's 6.2 million cable households), broadcasts from the state Capitol five days a week from 9 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. Period. The schedule is dictated not only by the amount of costly satellite time the Cal Channel can buy on its $1 million-a-year budget, but also by a general shortage of satellite capacity.

Come Oct. 1, the transponder it has been using will be otherwise engaged, and Hancock has been scrambling for an alternative.

OK, so that explains the limits on quantity of Cal Channel programming. How about the content? Hancock and his three-member staff select the day's viewing fare from a series of broadcast feeds produced by the Assembly and Senate. "We're here to serve only as a window to the process," says Hancock.

Even assuming good faith on the part of legislators in determining which hearings will be recorded, that still means a woefully narrow view of how the sausage gets made in Sacramento.

The Cal Channel owns one camera, which is theoretically available to film press conferences or public events outside the legislative chambers or hearing rooms. Given the limited satellite time, however, those events must compete with the floor sessions.

Now that the Legislature is out of session, though, Hancock, who is accountable to his cable industry board (and not the politicians), is actively seeking outside programming. Of necessity, it's got to come cheap. And one of the more ambitious packages of DIY political coverage is now available from one of the state's stodgier good-government groups, the California League of Women Voters.

With substantial help from cable giant TCI Cable Television, League members have kicked in $10,000 to join the ranks of citizen-news presenters. They are shooting video segments on 12 of the 15 propositions on the November ballot. (They are ignoring the three bond measures.) On Oct. 1, they plan to peddle the clips to hundreds of cable and broadcast outlets across the state, including TCI's 1.5 million households, free of charge.

"This is not going to be grainy public-access footage," asserts Alameda League member Nina Sabrack, who is also the League's state spokeswoman and one of the originators of the undertaking.

The League's well-deserved reputation for evenhandedness will be a selling point. Nationally, they've sponsored presidential debates, and locally, their printed guide to elections, Pros and Cons, is excruciatingly nonpartisan.

But the League is not without a certain liberal flavor. Its commitment to educating and empowering voters has an innate tilt.

Nevertheless, two top S.F. TV execs are unperturbed about the League's potential encroachment on their turf. David Metz, programming director at KGO, says he'd consider using the segments as elements in a larger show, if they met "the criteria of being balanced, verifiable. As a citizen, I welcome the opportunity to see quote-unquote unfiltered information."

"The growth in people doing it themselves, the Internet, where the professional journalist is competing with the layman, that's really healthy," says Al Holzer, vice president for news and programming at KRON and Bay TV. He doesn't see a place for the League segments on KRON's newscast. "There's not enough time."

They'd be a natural, though, for Bay TV, KRON's 24-hour local cable channel, he says. With no network affiliation, Bay TV is hungry for programming. It has a potential audience of 1.5 million Bay Area households. Not bad for beginners.

That sort of amalgam of nonprofit and commercial cable/broadcast is what Van Gordon Sauter says is the necessary and doable next step for taking up the slack in California's public affairs programming. General manager of KVIE public TV in Sacramento, Sauter is a former president of CBS News (best known as the guy behind the journalistically dubious decision to put CBS anchor Dan Rather in a sweater). He's also married to Kathleen Brown.

"In the largest state in the nation, this robust political culture is unrepresented on television -- government, public, private, cable, whatever. It's a glaring loss to society," he says.

Sauter blames it on "penurious, shortsighted instincts" of broadcasters. He says the ultimate answer will be a consortium of public and commercial TV, and that there's no reason to shy away from commercial funding. "California is commercial. Commercial is California," he says.

For now, the Cal Channel is slated to start carrying KVIE's political show, Express, which will give Sauter a statewide audience for the first time. And, of course, there're those League clips.

Phyllis Orrick and Susan Rasky can be reached at SF Weekly, Attn: Unspun, 425 Brannan, San Francisco, CA 94107; phone: (415) 536-8139; e-mail:

About The Authors

Phyllis Orrick


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