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Steady Gaze
The surprisingly long legacy of Wisconsin’s very own C-Span.

Wisconsin State Capitol

To follow the state budget debate this spring, you might have turned to your local newspaper, switched on public radio, or hunted up AP wire stories online. But for the full story – the really  full story – you’d have to pick none of the above.

Instead, you’d go to Wisconsin Eye, a non-partisan, nonprofit, and privately funded service aired on cable TV and accessible on the Internet that boasts gavel-to-gavel coverage of state government in all its sausage-making detail.


Since its inception 14 years ago, Wisconsin Eye has been likened to a state version of C-Span. That’s close, says Jon Henkes, co-founder and current CEO, but it falls short. C-Span, also a nonprofit, was created and funded by the cable TV industry. Wisconsin Eye was started and by Henkes and former broadcaster Jeff Roberts of the Wisconsin Radio Network as an independent organization to promote civic awareness of state government.


“We’re proud of what we’ve accomplished in our core mission,” says Henkes. During the 2012 election year, “We had in excess of 200 interviews in the general and primary elections in the state Senate, state Assembly and at statewide office levels. There’s no other media entity in the state that conducted that many statewide interviews.”


Wisconsin Eye also covered 37 appearances by the Democratic and Republican candidates for president and vice president and their spouses.


Recognition came last month when the Milwaukee Press Club named Steve Walters, Wisconsin Eye’s senior producer and former Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Madison bureau chief, “journalist of the year.” “We’re proud of that accomplishment,” Henke says. “It reflects Steve’s hard work, but it also reflects our core mission.”


Similar operations in other states are either direct offspring of the cable TV industry, state-funded institutions or some combination of the two. “What’s unique about Wisconsin Eye in the country is that we receive no funding from the state,” Henkes says.


The network does get some support from two cable networks. But it also takes donations from a wide range of individuals and foundations and offers a premium access that gives buyers a leg up in researching and making use of the free archives. Those all help to defray a $1.4 million annual budget for staff, equipment and ongoing production costs.


All it gets from the state is the access to the legislature to hang its cameras for floor debates and committee sessions. Wisconsin Eye also televises oral arguments before the state Supreme Court. Viewing through the networks’ streaming video site online spikes when there’s a big case, Henkes says. During the budget deliberations, particularly Joint Finance Committee hearings, viewing and traffic fluctuated dramatically with the change in topics being debated.


Chances are, most viewers have already seen Wisconsin Eye, whether they know it or not. The network routinely offers commercial stations a clean feed for sound bites from legislative debates, press conferences and other events it covers; usually the material punctuates a typical 90-second news piece. (Commercial stations are supposed to credit the service for its footage.) But streaming the network’s feed over commercial channels as it’s happening isn’t allowed.


The premium service, called “My Wisconsin Eye,” is aimed at “public policy professionals,” Henkes says. Although Wisconsin Eye holds copyright to its material, enabling it to control its reuse, the archives are public. Premium subscribers who pay the hefty $1,295 a year or $795 for six months subscription fees are able to more efficiently search out specific video they want and compile files from which they can extract clips. Henkes says users include lawyers, lobbyists and lawmakers. “It’s certainly of value to elected officials to build video clips and send them off to their home districts,” he points out.


One use isn’t permitted: Wisconsin Eye footage isn’t allowed in any communication or advertising at election time – not even campaign bait in the form of the incumbent’s inspiring rhetoric from the legislature floor (or golden gaffes from an opponent). And “not permitted” means not in ads and not even by uploading a clip to YouTube and sending the URL to voters or supporters: “Within 60 days of a general or primary election, according to our agreement, you can’t put it out there.”


Even requests from partisan documentarians are turned down. “Our intent is to put it out there for citizens to become informed,” Henkes says – implying that goal is perhaps not actually served by campaign advertising. The network has never had to act against violators, through it has sent letters turning down requests because the requesters were thought to have a partisan agenda.


For Wisconsin Eye, funding “is both a challenge and an opportunity,” Henkes says. “The sustainability question is the No. 1 issue in front of the network moving forward.”


Two years ago, the network turned down the Legislature’s offer to let Wisconsin Eye borrow money through the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority (WHEDA).  “The board said thank you but no thank you,” says Henkes. The deal didn’t pass “the test of not having a financial relationship with the state.”


Not long after that decision, some funders – who are arrayed across the political spectrum from the conservative Bradley Foundation to the liberal Evjue Foundation in Madison – met with and congratulated the board for standing firm. “Their commitment to the network was, ‘We’ll support you if you’re independent of state funding,’” says Henkes, who went from a newspaper career to working as the state Republican Party’s communications director in the mid-1980s, then as press secretary in the first term of Gov. Tommy Thompson. From 1990 until Wisconsin Eye’s founding in 1999, Henkes worked for the University of Wisconsin in various capacities.


Of course, the network’s vow of chastity doesn’t prevent transactions such as selling a premium My Wisconsin Eye account to, say, a state legislator’s office. But the fundraisers work hard to avoid partisan imbalances. If  a big grant comes from one side of the opinion spectrum, they’ll go out and try to solicit groups on the other side, Henkes says.

Among cable TV providers the biggest supporter is Charter Cable, which serves the Madison area as well as communities in the western region of the state. Wisconsin Eye gets a small cut for every Charter subscriber in the state.


Time Warner, the principal cable provider in Milwaukee and Southeastern Wisconsin, provides channel space for Wisconsin Eye. AT&T’s U-verse still doesn’t. Henkes says that is in deference to Charter, which faces competition from U-verse in some markets. While “there are conversations ongoing with AT&T,” he continues, any deal with U-verse can’t undercut the network’s commitment to Charter.


The only audience data Wisconsin Eye has collected is its online traffic. “We have not tried to analyze what our cable distribution viewership is,” Henkes says. “We know it’s a small number.” But the 2011 Capitol protests over Act 10 produced a surge of viewers big enough to affect other station’s ratings. “We heard it from other broadcasters, but I don’t have any data.”


He calculates the potential audience is bigger, though. “There are a lot of folks in Wisconsin who we believe would be interested if they knew about us.”


That theory will get tested soon. This fall, a statewide marketing campaign will launch “reintroducing Wisconsin Eye to the state,” Henke says. The brand-building exercise will be the first for the network since it was founded.  “We know that we are one of the best-kept secrets in Wisconsin.”


Along with that, Wisconsin Eye is getting ready to raise $2 million by the end of 2014 from corporations and individuals in the Milwaukee area, with Time Warner providing active support. The network also is seeking contributions to raise another quarter million dollars to pay for technology upgrades, replacing videotape equipment with digital technology and investing in other equipment.


A site tailored for smartphones and tablets is under consideration and could be unveiled in the fall as well. It’s possible that would come with a fee that would generate some additional revenue.


The network also expects to bring out some new programming in designated time slots that will build on its core mission of reporting on the activities of state government. A series about will spotlight innovation in the state and will have three objectives: “generating audience, generating sponsorship and generating enthusiasm.”


Meanwhile, the network seeks to deepen its longer-term resources. “We’d like to be in the position five years from now where we have a $10 million endowment in place,” Henkes says.


Henkes isn’t shy about promoting the role the network plays in today’s fractured media landscape.


Though he became a politician’s press secretary, he never lost touch with the idealism of his print journalism days at the Racine Journal Times and the Janesville Gazette.

“I was a damn good reporter; I loved what I did; and I felt there was a mission and a purpose and a need” for the craft of reporting, he says. “Newspapers then were largely doing well. In those days, in the mid-1980s, the Capitol pressroom was a beehive of activity.”

It was also so crowded that visiting reporters from out of town could barely find space there to work.

That’s changed dramatically – but what hasn’t is the importance of “freedom of information and citizen access to what is going on,” Henkes says. “If it’s never going to be the same again, you’ve got to create a space where that can still happen.”



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(Capitol photo via Shutterstock)

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