It’s been a year marked by a pandemic, recession, contentious elections, racial tensions, the sacking of the U.S. Capitol and threats against state capitols. But public affairs television continues to provide a COVID-friendly medium for supporting public institutions and even helping to protect democratic processes.
“This instrument can teach,” said legendary CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow in 1958. The instrument in question is television, and Murrow held out hope that TV’s signal could overcome the noise of contemporary society, complete with “evidence of decadence, escapism and insulation from the realities of the world in which we live. We are currently wealthy, fat, comfortable and complacent.” Smithsonian magazine put it another way: “Before it became known as the ‘idiot box,’ television was seen as the best hope for bringing enlightenment to the American people.”
Public television was heralded as the exception that proved the rule. When C-SPAN (Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network) was launched in 1979, it was conceived as a nonprofit public service by the cable television industry, providing live gavel-to-gavel coverage of congressional and other hearings of federal government agencies. It now holds a quarter million hours of such coverage in its archives.
In the 1990s, C-SPAN-like services came to the states. The one in my home of Washington was originally pitched as Wash-PAN before its backers settled on a simpler and more sustainable set of initials: TVW. Its founding creed was to “dare to be boring.” And it delivered -- hour after hour of the minutia of state government uncut to your living room.
C-SPAN Video Library and archives, maintained at Purdue Research Park, West Lafayette, Ind. (Weiss/Shutterstock)
Most state C-SPANs were creatures of their respective legislatures. Others like TVW were independent nonprofits (some of which negotiated infrastructure support from executive branch technology agencies), and still others were extensions of public broadcasting authorities. Some state-level public affairs channels were broadcast terrestrially, and many were able to leverage a section of the federal Communications Act that requires cable operators to set aside channels for public, educational or governmental ("PEG") use. The rise of both audio and video streaming technology allowed the services to expand coverage from the house and senate chambers to committee hearings, arguments before state supreme courts and most any meeting on “matters of public concern.”
The National Conference of State Legislatures maintains an online inventory of these state-level public affairs services and their parts. NCSL now matter-of-factly notes, “Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many state legislatures have been meeting remotely and have been live-streaming floor sessions and committee hearings to ensure public access.”
Indeed, public access is an especially important role served by public affairs TV during the pandemic era, but it is not the only one. Mashed up with Zoom and other commercial video services, public affairs channels are broadcasting public testimony on matters ranging from epidemiology and public health to race, homelessness, school closures and economic hardships. Wall-to-wall video, complete with the capacity to interact, provides a reliable means to hold government accountable and gives voice to residents who can seek redress from elected and appointed officials during this difficult time.
At a time when public discourse has been infected by snippets of speech taken out of context as part of calculated disinformation campaigns, public affairs TV delivers unedited gavel-to-gavel coverage of what was said, when and by whom, making it a powerful public record. This holds the promise of putting important public conversations in context where complex issues can be discussed and understood while, at the same time, countering disinformation by providing an accurate accounting of the coded musings of the conspiracy minded.
The importance of public affairs television increased when fences were erected in January around capitol campuses across the country after police and intelligence agencies identified credible safety threats to public officials and the institutions they occupy. Here again, cameras and microphones remained where members of the public could no longer go — allowing us to bear witness to policy deliberations and decisions being made in our name.
Unedited and unblinking public affairs TV attracts only a small audience compared to commercial channels. But, Murrow said, “This instrument can teach. It can illuminate … it can even inspire, but it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights and a box.”
An earlier version of this column appeared in Government Technology.