TV channel seeks to beam from the right

November 27, 1993|By New York Times News Service

Its creators call it "C-Span with attitude." Its detractors call it the political equivalent of televangelism.

On Dec. 6, the Free Congress Foundation, a conservative group, is set to begin what seems to be the nation's first public affairs channel with a declared ideological spin.

The channel, National Empowerment Television, or NET, will offer weekly programs like "The Progress Report," with Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., as host; "War Games," a look at military strategy, and "Youngbloods," a call-in show for young people that has as its stated aim "challenging the cynicism" of MTV.

The channel, it seems, is supposed to do for conservative political views what Court TV has done for the legal system: make them a fixture of popular culture.

"We're going to speak to those Americans who feel they have a grievance with Washington," said Burton Pines, the host of one new program, "Capitol Watch," and the vice chairman of NET, based in Washington.

In a news release, NET says it offers an alternative at a time "when the press is being criticized for being too liberal." Mr. Pines said, however, that while many would call the channel's politics conservative, he prefers the term "populist."

He said the channel would not be partisan in a conventional sense but would welcome Republicans and Democrats alike who believe in "less government."

'Empower Americans'

"We're going to empower Americans to hold Washington more accountable," he said.

Initially at least, NET will be most widely available not to cable viewers but to the almost 4 million Americans, many of them in rural areas, who own satellite dishes.

So far, only one cable system has committed to carrying the network.

That system, owned by Media General of Fairfax County, Va., has more than 200,000 subscribers in the Washington suburbs, an area with a high concentration of people keenly interested in political media. Mr. Pines said he was "deep in conversation" with other cable systems.

Some cable executives predicted, however, that NET would have a hard time getting on systems, partly because of what they called its limited audience appeal but also because many cable systems have no open channels.

No Fairness Doctrine

Because the Fairness Doctrine requiring broadcasters to present opposing viewpoints on public issues was dropped in the Reagan administration, NET does not appear to have a legal obligation to present opposing political views. But Mr. Pines said the channel would invite politicians

or organizations that are criticized to offer their views on the air.

As cable television increasingly becomes a province of niche programming -- from the Food Network to the Sci-Fi Channel -- it seems only logical that ideological channels like NET would emerge.

Liberal organizations such as People for the American Way are also looking at possible cable television ventures. Indeed, Arthur Kropp, president of that group, calls ideologically oriented programming "the wave of the future."

Mr. Kropp said he was skeptical of NET's claims that it would be nonpartisan.

Like Pat Robertson

"It's going to be not far from what Pat Robertson does," he said, referring to Robertson's Family Channel, which mixes reruns of the "Waltons" and other "family" series with evangelical talk shows.

"They're going to probably give conservative dogma interspersed with talk about wine," he said. (NET is, in fact, planning a weekly half-hour wine show, called "The Vine Line.")

National Empowerment Television, which has a budget of roughly $10 million for its first year, is being financed by donations from individuals and foundations like the W. H. Brady Foundation, Mr. Pines said. Raising money, he said, "has not been a huge problem."

The channel is registered as a nonprofit organization but is still allowed to sell advertising to support its operations.

NRA may be sponsor

Albert Crane, president of Crane Media Sales in New York, which is handling NET's advertising, said that several advertisers had already bought time, including The National Review, Phillips CD-I, Braun and Time-Life Music. He said discussions were under way with the National Rifle Association.

The Free Congress Foundation has been producing television programs and distributing them via satellite for the last few years. Those programs -- a few hours' worth a week -- have been aimed not at individual viewers, but at conservative groups meeting at sites with special satellite receivers.

On 24 hours

In contrast, NET plans to offer programming 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Several programs, though, will be repeated overnight.

NET's focus will be on public affairs, with programs like "The Capitol Watch," which promises to illuminate "the real agenda of a White House action," and "Scoop!" a sort of "I Witness Video" for political activists, which will feature home videos on local government.

Mr. Pines said that NET's coverage of public affairs would be distinguished by its skepticism of the Washington power structure.

When NET reports on the Capitol, he said, it will ask questions like, "What does this tell us about the arrogance of Congress?"

Gingrich upbeat

But there will be good news. In his show, "The Progress Report," Mr. Gingrich, the Republican whip, said he plans to accentuate the positive in government, focusing on "where we're having success stories."

On "Direct Line with Paul Weyrich," viewers will be able to phone in and speak to Mr. Weyrich, the president of the Free Congress Foundation and a well-known conservative.

And on "Crime and Punishment," they will be able to offer comments on the criminal justice system to William P. Barr, the attorney general in the Bush administration.

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