For national issues, there's C-SPAN. For local issues, there's your nightly news broadcast. But for TV coverage of state affairs, Pittsburghers had nowhere to turn -- until a few months ago.
In March, AT&T Cable, the area's largest cable provider, added Pennsylvania Cable Network to its Pittsburgh offerings. PCN, which calls itself "the commonwealth's version of C-SPAN," shows everything from live footage of the state General Assembly to tours of Pennsylvania factories and museums.
The network provides a vital public service, President and CEO Brian Lockman said. "I've always been struck by how little the traditional media cover state government," Lockman said. "There are something like 55 broadcast stations in Pennsylvania, but when you add up all the reporters assigned to state government, you get zero."
Lockman, a Pennsylvania native, was C-SPAN's vice president of operations for 15 years before joining PCN at its inception in 1979. He considers himself a crusader for a very important cause.
"State government is really the place where the issues people care about are addressed," he said, adding that schools, roads, public transportation, health care, insurance and utilities are all regulated at the state level.
PCN was available to most of Pittsburgh's surrounding area before, but with its addition to AT&T, it finally came to the city proper. "We had a lot of interest expressed in [PCN] over time, from residents of the city as well as City Council people," AT&T spokesman Dan Garfinkel said. "In March, we finally had the channel space to add it."
The nonprofit network began as a distance-education medium, broadcasting higher-education programs coordinated with Penn State for college credit. That agenda began to widen in 1992, when then-Gov. Bob Casey introduced the Capital for a Day program, a series of town meetings throughout the state.
PCN covered the meetings, and, as it did, it saw the opportunity to offer more state news. In its modern incarnation, available to 2.6 million homes (about 75 percent of the state's televisions), the network still offers telecourses, but its main mission is to cover state affairs, from Pennsylvania Press Club Luncheons to programs on the state's land and wildlife.
According to Lockman, 22 states have a similar network, but PCN is the acknowledged leader. "PCN is the model that they follow, in terms of the number of hours, the number of homes, the number of staff, the types of programs. They all want to grow up to be PCN."
District 8 Councilman Dan Cohen, an advocate for public affairs television, said PCN provides a valuable civic service to his constituents. "C-SPAN has had a significant increase in audience share in the last decade because people really want to know what their government is up to," he said. "The same is true at the state level. We're very glad AT&T chose to add PCN to their channel lineup."
PCN is funded by the cable companies that choose to include it; they pay a per-user fee to include the channel.
In addition to a live feed of the state legislature, PCN has stepped up its coverage of the state's political races every election year. For this year's primaries, the network aired 4 1/2 hours of analysis, interviews and results -- far more in-depth than a local news broadcast, which might have time to show only exit-poll results.
The network will continue to cover the race for all the state's row offices, its contested congressional seats and the U.S. Senate race.
"This is an important election year in Pennsylvania, but the focus in the traditional media will be on the presidential election and, to some extent, the U.S. Senate race," Lockman said. "Meanwhile, there are a lot of other races that will profoundly affect people's lives."
The state House of Representatives, now controlled by the Republicans by a 102-100 margin, is up for grabs. A Democratic takeover would shake up the assembly's legislative agenda; in addition, when Pennsylvania loses two congressional seats, the party in charge of the state House will determine how the districts are reapportioned.
"If it's controlled by the Republicans, they'll carve those seats out of Democratic districts, and vice versa," Lockman said. "This has national implications."
The network offers much more than politics, from high school sports to the state farm show. Beth Ann Matkovich, PCN's spokesperson, said the channel's "PCN Tours" series is its most popular feature. The tours began in 1995 with a visit to York County's Harley-Davidson motorcycle factory.
Nearly 300 tours later, PCN has earned acclaim and a devoted following for the series, which has explored an autoharp factory, the Marshmallow Peeps plant and the Zippo Lighters manufacturing facility, to name a few. Lockman attributes the tours' unexpected popularity to their tactile focus. "The Internet and the information economy get all the attention these days, but there's still a lot of real stuff made in Pennsylvania," he said.
The tours are conducted not by an interviewer or narrator from the network, but by a plant employee. "It's the same approach we take to covering hearings," Lockman said, an approach he describes as "clipping microphones on people and following them around." That way, the audience gets an insider's point of view from start to finish.
"We don't have an ax to grind," Lockman said. "We're not the story -- we cover the issue."
For PCN schedule information, visit the channel's Web site at www.pcntv.com.