By Tom Still

MADISON – To be truthful, I’ve had my doubts about the business model behind WisconsinEye, the long-awaited public affairs television channel that proposes to be the in-state equivalent of C-SPAN.

In a state where many candidates for the Legislature will run unopposed for election this year, is there really a market for gavel-to-gavel coverage of legislative hearings, Assembly floor debates and other government meetings?

Jeff Roberts, the determined founder of WisconsinEye, continues to believe the answer is “yes” — with a twist.

Along with supporters that include seven former governors, Roberts is convinced that public life in Wisconsin – as well as the political process itself – will benefit from the kind of exposure his cable network will generate. Democratic government improves if people are engaged, and part of getting them engaged is giving them opportunities to watch and learn.

That’s a great public service, but it’s not a conventional advertising model. You’ll never see boxes of corn flakes sold on the non-profit WisconsinEye. Still, enough sponsors are stepping forward to nurture the vision of veteran journalist Roberts, who may be broadcasting debates on the floor of the Legislature as soon as January. Donors such as the Kohler Trust, the Bradley Foundation, Xcel Energy and the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel have helped raise well over $1 million so far.

Fundraising is expected to accelerate once a legislative committee works out the terms for WisconsinEye’s use of public space in the Capitol. In time, viewers would be able to watch key public hearings, some proceedings of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, and even some executive branch actions.

There’s a secondary coverage market, however, that may prove as illuminating as the first. WisconsinEye will eventually become a vehicle for coverage of business, technology, the arts and health care. Long after the Legislature has packed for home, events and forums surrounding those broader issues would continue year-round.

Had “WisconsinEye” been up and running four years ago, for example, the first Wisconsin Economic Summit would have provided opportunities for extended coverage. Today, forums such as the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference, the Wisconsin Life Sciences and Venture Conference, the Governor’s Economic Development Conference, a planned Science and Technology Summit and a recent conference on the future of Digital Health Care would provide more on-air content.

Such events could gain broader exposure through the power of television and a dedicated, C-SPAN-style approach.

“Large amounts of capital are flowing into this sector, yet there are few opportunities to tell the stories that encourage greatest success,” Roberts said. “Wisconsin is making the investment in a high-tech, high-wage future. WisconsinEye will help to build the best return by disseminating the messages — continuously, creatively and accurately.”

As Wisconsin transforms its traditional economy to include businesses and processes that are globally competitive, the need for public understanding of the mega-trends behind that transition will become more important. In turn, a more informed citizenry leads to better decision-making by policymakers, who tend to keep one ear to the ground. 

“The return when there is public understanding is huge,” said former Assembly Speaker Tom Loftus, co-chairman of WisconsinEye’s board of directors. “This is especially true in emerging fields where the potential for rapid expansion is the greatest.”

Former Gov. Lee Dreyfus, the other co-chairman, agreed: “In the all-out race among states to gain the edge in high-tech job growth, there is no place for delay. Venture investment, public support, infrastructure placement – and much more – are drawn to where the vision is brightest. WisconsinEye will, by its coverage, point many to our technology-based future.”

Watching government will be the primary mission of WisconsinEye, but keeping broader business and health trends in sight will prove vital, as well. It’s time to take the blindfold off WisconsinEye and let its vision grow.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.