Love of Institutions and Innovation

Legacy, serendipity and public affairs TV.

by / September 3, 2003
The fall television season is attempting to get traction with more scripted fare and less reality programming -- except for a nonaffiliated group of state public affairs channels and their unlikely programming niche: real live government.

State-level C-SPAN services, as they are commonly known, were curiosities only a decade ago. Today they are part of the public life of 20 states and a linchpin in the campaign for digital government. That's gratifying for Denny Heck, a pioneer of this form of electronic statecraft who retired in August from the helm of TVW in Washington state.

Heck came to TV in the early 1990s not as a broadcaster, but as a government insider and overtly partisan player. A former five-term legislator, who subsequently served as chief of staff to Gov. Booth Gardner, Heck shared with TVW co-founder Stan Marshburn a reverence for the institutions of government. And it shows.

Heck has long been concerned with the effects of "corrosive technology" on social discourse (less civil, more polarized), the relevance of geographic and political boundaries (becoming meaningless), and participation in the public square (declining in favor of private spaces).

TVW has been a laboratory for using two such corrosive technologies -- TV and the Internet -- to be subversively helpful in reversing those trends, bringing the workings of government home. In fact, the channel is available in nearly 90 percent of all cable homes in Washington state.

In a live televised exit interview, Heck said TVW saved "untold amounts of money" by eliminating travel costs for those who, "as a matter of citizenship or a matter of profession," monitor state government deliberations and public-policy events.

TVW's gavel-to-gavel coverage runs under the self-effacing motto, "Dare to be dull." Its modest advertising campaigns are slightly more nuanced, suggesting it is "TV that makes you smarter."

Like many of its counterparts, the private not-for-profit TVW met with legislative resistance at its inception -- cameras could chill debate, or lead to grandstanding. Coverage could skew in favor of one party or the other, or one chamber over another. None of that happened. If anything, Heck said there has been a "small impact in comportment." Those in the camera shot are more likely to act interested in what is being said.

The ubiquitous yet unobtrusive cameras have proven to be a friend of public institutions. One academic observer credits TVW and its kin with being at least a consequence of, if not a cause of, increased government accountability and openness. That's important to Heck, who worries about the state of deliberative bodies in postmodern times. As he leaves the public arena after 31 years, Heck urges legislators to give "more consideration for the needs of the institution ... and nurture [it] carefully."

TVW is a testament to the power of a good idea, coupled with sheer force of will and the agility to adapt in real time -- even if it meant becoming digital by accident.

TVW was the ninth such service in the country, but the first to simultaneously provide live streams from multiple hearing rooms. Now in its ninth year, TVW produces eight or more hours of original programming every day, the digital archive of which has captured "every word spoken in the last six years" and grown into the "world's largest repository of streaming media."

Heck admits to at least one flaw in the 1993 plan that outlined the grand vision for TVW. The plan did not include a single reference to the Internet. "We missed it, but we caught up fast."

Heck is succeeded by Cindy Zehnder, a former chief clerk of the state House and longtime public servant with senior appointments in the executive branch and higher education. Zehnder holds the key to fulfilling the last part of Heck's original purpose in starting TVW in the first place -- "a strong motivation to be a part of something that will outlast me."
Paul W. Taylor Contributing Writer

Paul W. Taylor, Ph.D., is the editor-at-large of Governing magazine. He also serves as the chief content officer of e.Republic, Governing’s parent organization, as well as senior advisor to the Governing Institute. Prior to joining e.Republic, Taylor served as deputy Washington state CIO and chief of staff of the state Information Services Board (ISB). Dr. Taylor came to public service following decades of work in media, Internet start-ups and academia. He is also among a number of affiliated experts with the non-profit, non-partisan Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) in Washington, D.C.