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Oregon Channel connects people, politics

Starting Monday, Southern Oregonians who either watch high-definition television or subscribe to Charter Communications Digital Basic package can invite the entire Oregon Legislature into their living rooms.

Using six cameras, the Oregon Channel will provide live, gavel-to-gavel, unedited coverage from the legislative floor in Salem.

Programming will include coverage of Senate and House floor sessions, committee hearings, Oregon Supreme Court hearings, state agency hearings, capitol news conferences and other government and public affairs events of statewide interest.

"Viewers will see hours of boring sessions, occasionally sprinkled by moments of brilliance and absurdity," jokes Rep. Dennis Richardson, R-Central Point.

But seriously, says Richardson, "anything that will cause the governmental processes to be more transparent, we should promote."

Learning more about the legislative process by watching the Oregon Channel will help viewers gauge how political decisions can impact their lives, Richardson said.

"Fees, regulations, taxation, social issues - they all impact Oregon families and people expect that when they elect someone to represent them, that person is in Salem working for them," said Richardson.

"But for the most part, it's special interests and lobbyists who pay attention to what's going on and place pressure on getting through their viewpoint or blocking things. The peoples' point of view is not often advocated."

Holding legislators accountable for their actions will be the foremost benefit of the new service, agreed House District 5 Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, who will serve as assistant majority leader for the house. "We want people to really see how the work gets done and to keep us on our toes by calling or writing and saying, 'Hey, I just saw you on TV and the way you voted isn't what you said.' "

Buckley hopes viewers will use the channel in tandem with a new policy change requiring 72 hours' notice before a legislative hearing takes place.

"People in Jackson County will be able to follow bills like Measure 37 on TV, then have more time to send an e-mail statement to your representative or come up here," he said.

"In the past, the house has operated on a 24- or 48-hour notice but we heard a lot of frustration about the time constraints considering the distance we are from Salem."

How will local legislators act on television? Stress could be apparent, especially for those politicians who are not prepared to debate or present their proposals, said Richardson. Others, however, are apparently looking forward to the limelight.

"It's interesting to note that there are some legislators who have picked their desk on the floor based on camera locations," said Richardson, who ran the House floor last session but is embracing a less public role this time. "I'm in the minority and won't be as involved in the minutiae and I retained the same desk I had last session."

Desiring an informed and active citizenry drove Southern Oregon Public Television to participate in the project, said Communication Manager Vickie Killion.

"As more people see what's happening, they will be more empowered to speak on the issues and talk with our representatives with a more educated voice," said Killion. "It really could make Southern Oregon more of a player on the state political level."

About 70,000 Southern Oregon households will have immediate access to the Oregon Channel, based on estimates from Charter and SOPTV. In the next two years, that number will increase substantially as analog televisions become obsolete and more viewers switch to high-definition.

"The service won't trickle down to analog televisions," said Brad Fay, SOPTV's director of content and services. "It's true that the Oregon Channel is a high-tech thing right now, but we're all going to be living in a high-tech world in two years."

The Oregon Legislature joined forces with Oregon Public Broadcasting, SOPTV, the Oregon University System and the Oregon Public Affairs Network to create the channel. At a cost of approximately $150,000 (to be funded by savings in the legislative budget), the pilot will be evaluated at session's end to determine the feasibility of building a permanent Oregon Channel statewide.

Oregon Channel will be broadcast over the airwaves on SOPTV digital television channel 8.3 in the Rogue Valley and 22.3 in the Klamath Basin, and on Charter Communications Digital Basic Channel 297. For updated channel information, see www.soptv.org/oregonchannel.

More information can be found at www.oregonchannel.org, where viewers can also watch the channel online, look up program schedules and access live streaming video feeds from the Capitol hearing rooms and chambers.

Jennifer Strange is a freelance writer living in Central Point. Reach her at jlstrange@hotmail.com.