California's Version of C-SPAN Goes Off the Air – With No Plans to Replace It

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The state Capitol in Sacramento.  (Craig Miller/KQED)

The California Channel — California's version of C-SPAN — went off the air early Wednesday and will close its doors for good on Oct. 31.

With it goes one of the main ways Californians could follow what their legislators and government were up to on a daily basis.

"We managed to do, I think, a great service for the citizens of California in opening that window to democracy and letting them see the sausage being made, if you will," said California Channel President John Hancock. "It's not always pretty, but it is certainly instructive."

Started in 1989 as a nonprofit, the Cal Channel, as it's commonly known, aired live legislative floor sessions of the state Senate and Assembly, major committee hearings, state Supreme Court hearings and gubernatorial news conferences and debates. It also would occasionally show panels and educational programming on state issues. Cal Channel has been supported by the California Cable and Telecommunications Association since 1993.

Available to any Californian with a cable TV subscription, the channel has been funded through cable fees and costs about $1.2 million annually to run. That comes out to about $0.02 per cable subscriber statewide, Hancock said.

The channel's board — made up of cable and telecomm executives — voted earlier this year to end operations. The board argues that the need for the Cal Channel has become obsolete, largely because of the internet.

In 2016, California voters passed Proposition 54, which requires the recording of public meetings of the state Legislature. The recordings must be posted online within 24 hours of a meeting and be available for 72 hours before a bill can be passed.

"The passage of that initiative, in my board's view, basically eliminated the need for the California Channel because our efforts were duplicative," Hancock said.

The cable association also cited concern that not all Californians had access to the Cal Channel — since it was only available via a cable subscription — and a growing number of TV viewers are "cutting the cord" and relying solely on streaming services. The Cal Channel also has its own YouTube channel.

It's hard to say exactly how many people watched the Cal Channel since they didn't do viewer surveys, Hancock said.

But they did do some polling about six years ago and found the largest number of C-SPAN viewers come from California and those viewers are the same ones who watch the Cal Channel. About four in 10 households that get the Cal Channel watch it with some regularity, Hancock said.

There is a demographic whose consistent viewership of the Cal Channel is certain: People who serve as watchdogs on state government and those who work closely with it — advocates, reporters and even government staff — watch the channel as a way to stay abreast of the latest developments live without having to spend time and money getting to Sacramento and sitting through hearings all day.

"We know that journalists and lobbyists watch it all the time," joked CalMatters CEO Neil Chase.

That's partially why CalMatters, a nonprofit news outlet covering California politics, is one of a number of offices looking at ways to fill the void Cal Channel will leave.

Both the state Senate and Assembly have their own websites where they stream most public meetings. Although the Proposition 54 requirement is only to post video recordings within 24 hours, both houses have largely livestreamed their floor sessions and have provided audio streams when there is no video for many meetings.

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However, those state Senate and Assembly streaming links can be hard to find and difficult to navigate. And there isn't always context or information about what is being debated on your computer screen, said Chase.

Some advocates also worry that some hearings and meetings the Cal Channel aired won't make it to the state's streaming service.

Assemblyman Kevin Mullin, a Democrat who represents San Francisco and the Peninsula, has been talking to cable entities and various groups to try to find a replacement for Cal Channel.

Those ideas run the gamut, from using part of the $200 billion state budget to fund the station's $1.2 million annual operating costs to having a nonprofit, like CalMatters, fill the void.

Chase, CalMatters' CEO, said they're considering possibilities like picking up the livestreaming feed but making it more accessible and contextual — or even trying to find funding to allow them to take over the operations of a TV channel.

The other question, said Mullin's office, is if cable providers are required to continue to fund and air a channel that covers government dealings in some capacity.

"We believe the state franchisees have an obligation to carry legislative programming," said Susan Kennedy, Mullin's spokesperson.