Don’t touch that dial! CalChannel turns 20

The California Channel – CalChannel as it’s known in the Capitol – is 20 years old. The public service news channel celebrated its 20th anniversary last week, after it aired its coverage of the governor’s State of the State Address.

The channel calls itself the “eyes and ears” of California’s citizens and is the principal TV news source for live coverage of all things state government – including legislative hearings, press conferences, floor sessions and third-party conferences.

Time passed quickly for CalChannel’s first two decades.

“It’s shocking,” said CalChannel President John Hancock, noting that he can hardly believe the time has gone by so rapidly.

Indeed, CalChannel hasn’t wasted much time since it took off in 1991 airing the Assembly floor and committee hearings for 1.5 million homes across California.
Within five years CalChannel was accessible to 4.6 million cable subscribers and had aired Supreme Court arguments on such monumental decisions as term limits and reapportionment.

Within that same five-year period, CalChannel also became the primary news source for the governor’s State of the State address and the legislative responses that followed.
Today, CalChannel is a widely recognized and award-winning Capitol staple, providing 24-hour coverage of the legislative process to 5.5 million subscribers statewide.
It is one of the only media outlets that offer one-on-one interviews to all backed candidates for the state’s elected offices and that provides live coverage of legislative floor sessions without editing or commentary.

The channel has received eight awards since its opening 20 years ago, including an Emmy and two Beacon Awards, from the California Television Public Affairs Association.
CalChannel has also played a key role in increasing Californians’ awareness of government issues, Hancock said.  

“Three out of five callers to C-SPAN are from California,” Hancock said.

“I can hardly believe that we’ve grown this much. It’s like we’re a real cable channel,” Hancock said, laughing.

The CalChannel’s existence is largely due to cable companies.   

CalChannel started out as an educational nonprofit created by the Center for Governmental Studies and the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communication in reaction to low public morale surrounding the current media coverage of government. The organization initially depended on grants to provide the seed money needed to develop and operate in the early 1990s but it only took a few years before the money dried up.

The California Cable Television Industry stepped in and assumed financial responsibility in 1993, reshaping the programming to reflect the model of C-SPAN and allowing CalChannel to stay up and running in exchange for being able to offer cable subscribers access to the channel.  

“They basically came in and saved the day,” Hancock said.

Despite facing the financial struggles associated with being a nonprofit, CalChannel has maintained a steady lead on the technology that has changed the way news is consumed.

The channel first aired legislative hearings online in 1998, seven years before Twitter and YouTube came into play. The next step will be making CalChannel accessible to smartphones but there are still some hurdles in the way of that, Hancock said.

In the meantime, where’s the anniversary party?

“The budget is really, really tight this year so we’re not going crazy. We may do something in-house,” Hancock said.

Maybe next year – that will mark another year covering the Senate side of state politics.

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