Too Little, Too Late For Nonprofit Operating CT-N
HARTFORD, CT —(Updated 8 p.m.) With five hours to spare Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman tried to salvage the legislature’s contract with the nonprofit operator of the Connecticut Television Network by offering $400,000 in operating funds and $1 million in bonding.
In a letter to legislative leaders, Malloy and Wyman asked them to reconsider the resources they planned to dedicate toward the network.
They also said they were also troubled “that matters of editorial liberty and coverage of events other than the legislature may have played a role in the failure to come to a new agreement. The operator of CT-N should cover whatever is of interest to the public, and that should clearly include Executive or Judicial branch activities where they deem appropriate.”
But it was too little, too late.
The state ended its 18 year relationship with the Connecticut Public Affairs Network (CPAN) at 5 p.m. Friday.
And money may not have addressed the root of the problem, which appears to be about editorial control of the network..
CPAN let the Office of Legislative Management know at 7 p.m. Thursday that it would no longer be able to continue operating the network if the state wouldn’t allow it to seek outside funding to continue its mission.
Some in the legislature felt that since they paid for the nonprofit to operate its network the cameras should be focused on the legislature. However, when the nonprofit was founded its vision always included coverage of all three branches of government.
Anticipating the increasing anxiety over the funding and editorial control, the nonprofit asked lawmakers to allow it to levy a 40 cent per month fee on cable subscribers for the service. The 2016 legislation never got called for a vote.
Then in May, as part of bidding on the new contract, CPAN had already agreed to cancel programming it had been producing for more than 12 years in order to stay within the confines of the revised five-year agreement. CPAN laid off staff associated with that additional programming at the end of August.
However, editorial disputes between CPAN and the Office of Legislative Management started earlier this year when OLM refused to allow a television broadcast of their opening day conversations with Diane Smith. They objected to allowing anyone who wasn’t a legislator to be part of the show.
“Interviews should be limited to legislators only,” Jim Tracy, executive director of Legislative Management, said in an email in January. “There should be no interviews with any ‘guests representing a broad, balanced collection of stakeholders likely to be impacted by the Governor’s budget strategy’.”
Legislative Management also prohibited live television coverage of Office of Policy and Management Secretary Ben Barnes explaining the governor’s two-year budget proposal in February.
Pat Sheehan, chairman of CPAN, said Friday that they almost didn’t bid on what they thought was a $2.4 million contract because they weren’t sure they would be able to carry out their mission. He said that’s why other entities who expressed an interest in bidding didn’t bid.
The bipartisan budget agreement allocated $1.2 million for the service.
“We are providing an information service that’s intended for the benefit of the public,” Sheehan said.
He said they’re not the “audiovisual department” for the General Assembly.
“This is not about money. It is about editorial control,” Sheehan said.
He said OLM in rejecting its offer to find outside funding wanted it to lay off two-thirds of its staff and only cover 10 hours of programming a week.
“They wanted to limit what the coverage is and they’re using the budget as an excuse,” Sheehan said.
In a letter to Tracy, Paul Giguere, president and CEO of CPAN, said the nonprofit that has operated the network since its inception in 1999 can’t continue to operate with the drastic reduction in funding and elimination of editorial control.
“The 15-percent planned reduction in our operating budget was an eventuality we prepared for and were ready to accommodate. This sudden 65 percent reduction is simply unworkable,” Giguere wrote.
Giguere, who was a production manager and assistant executive director at West Hartford’s Public Access station before starting CPAN, said it was started “with the understanding that the operator of CT-N had the autonomy to make its own decisions about covering all three branches of state government and creating nonpartisan educational content that helped citizens understand their government better.”
He said for the first 15 years that’s what happened and legislative leadership honored the “arm’s length” relationship.
“Despite our best efforts to seek solutions with the General Assembly, the unwillingness to discuss alternatives to these new editorial and financial restrictions leaves us with very little choice. The CT-N we created and have been trying to manage doesn’t seem to exist any longer.”
On Friday morning, the CT-N staff huddled in the control room in the Legislative Office Building telling stories about their years helping run the network and packing up their personal belongings as they readied themselves for a staff meeting and their last live broadcast at 2 p.m.
They were going to be covering the Sentencing Commission’s Special Committee On Sex Offenders meeting, and the Task Force to study the Humane Treatment of Animals in Regional and Municipal Shelters. Both events were taking place in the Legislative Office Building.
At some point Friday afternoon the Office of Legislative Management posted a note outside the control room asking anyone interested in helping them figure out a contingency plan to come up and fill out an application.
The note from OLM’s Eric Connery says they were “surprised and disappointed by the contract termination letter,” but they would like to have the control room staffed on Monday, Nov. 6.
“We are working on both a short term and long term solution,” Connery wrote. “There is a strong possibility that some of you can be part of that solution.”
Most of the staff went up to fill out an application.
Following Friday’s meeting with legislative staff, there were no immediate plans to do anything except continue having conversations and figure out how to get the network on a 24-hour loop of previously recorded programming.
“We have acknowledged and accepted CPAN’s letter to terminate our latest agreement effective at 5:00 P.M. today and are working on an interim solution,” Tracy said in an email around 7 p.m. Friday night. “All the details have not been worked out but we hope to not have any down time on CT-N.”
Rich Hanley, associate professor of journalism at Quinnipiac University and a member of the CT-N advisory council, said in the short term it won’t be a timely portal into the workings of the state legislature, “especially at a time when this state is so divided.”
He said he doesn’t know what the discussions were internally but “it’s disturbing that political government would think so little of this instrument to get to the point where it could be off the air.”
The network, which has been run by CPAN for 18 years, “brings public events of note to people who cannot attend,” Hanley said. “It is the network of record in Connecticut. The legislature needs to fund the network to preserve transparency in the work it does, even if the work is at times unpleasant and unpopular.”
Malloy’s offer to bond $1 million for CT-N would allow them to install and begin utilizing already purchased new equipment, including high definition cameras sitting in boxes for more than two years. Part of the reason no new bids were submitted in May, according to Sheehan, was possibly because CT-N is still operating with standard definition cameras and equipment.
In 2015, CT-N covered 169 public hearings and 305 committee meetings. In 2016, it was 132 public hearings and 223 committee meetings.