Although initially, MPBN's new State House channel would not have the variety of programming that cable television viewers have come to associate with C-SPAN, it could in time grow to become a homegrown state version of that national network -- a sort of MESPAN.
Mark Vogelzang is the chief executive officer of MPBN. He says the new channel is the next logical progression for public affairs programming in Maine.
"If you think about it, on cable television we can see our own local town council, or school board meetings on local access," Vogelzang says. "We can also turn and watch C-Span nationally and see what happens to the U.S. Congress. But we don't have that statewide here in Maine - the ability to turn on the television and watch what's happening in the State House in Augusta, and from my perspective that's real transparency in government. It's something that's bipartisan and it's something - I think - an idea whose time has come."
Vogelzang's MESPAN proposal still requires final approval of the Democratically-controlled, 10-member Legislative Council, and funding approval from MPBN's board of trustees. The pilot program would require the network to prepare a budget of between $250,000 to $300,000 dollars.
"The trustees need to meet to review the budget," Vogelzang said. "It's an expensive project and it's being underwritten by MPBN. No state funds are being used for this. So it's an important project that needs to be fully reviewed and vetted with budgets and expenses that the board of trustees would normally review."
The new State House programming would air MPBN digital channel 10-4, and would be available on many of the state's cable television systems. Vogelzang says that while live coverage of the Legislature can currently be viewed over the Internet on the Legislature's Web site, MPBN's broadcasts will bring State House coverage to a greater number of people.
"I think a State House channel fits very nicely into the needs of the government to have its actions available to a wide swarth of the population on free over-the-air television," Vogelzang says. "And it also fits with MPBN's long-range goals and continuing goals of providing journalism and news and information from all of our content. So we're using the digital television channels that we already have to provide greater free public access."
"This is transparency - this is providing a window onto state government that doesn't exist right now," says Mal Leary, the owner and sole proprietor of Capitol News Service, which provides State House news to newpapers and radio stations - including MPBN.
Leary will oversee the operations of MPBN's new State House channel as it begins programming of the House, Senate and Appropriations Committee as well as selected coverage of important bills in other legislative committees.
"Start off with the House in the morning when they're in session, tape the Senate and provide all the Senate session to folks, go to the Appropriations hearing room, let's say, and have the budget hearing being broadcast, and then another hearing of interest, or a news conference of interest, or more than one news conference so that folks will be able to watch on their television what's going on," Leary says.
The issue has yet to reach legislative council, but based on what he's heard, Senate President Justin Alfond says he's intrigued by the proposal.
"I think it's essential for the people of Maine to know what their representatives and senators are doing up here at the State House, so every time we can give them more opportunities to look into the State House and see what we're doing, it's a great thing," Alfond says.
Republican leaders have also expressed support for the proposal, as has Maine Gov. Paul LePage, who despite efforts to eliminate MPBN's budget two years ago, is squarely behind this proposal, according to spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett.
"I think anytime you incorporate transparency into government, it's a win-win situation for Mainers, and that's why the governor supports this," Bennett says. "The more Mainers can see what's going on in Augusta, the capitol, the better," Bennett says.
MPBN CEO Mark Vogelzang says he hopes to receive all final approvals for the project by mid-January.