The Insider: NBC's got Tim Russert and TVW's got Denny Heck

By David Volk
For Washington Law and Politics

When ratings sweeps roll around, Denny Heck doesn't add dramatic car chases, shoot-'em-ups or cliff-hanging episodes to his TV station's schedule to attract viewers. Nor does he hype investigative exposes on hazardous crayons or X-ray technician licensing just to scare people into watching.

He doesn't have to because he knows that most channel surfers only stop at TVW long enough for their eyes to glaze over before they paddle right on by.

TVW's founder doesn't mind, though, because he has a mission.

And a secret.

"We know we will never threaten 'ER' or 'Who Wants to be a Millionaire,' but that's not why we exist. Our purpose is to reach people who have an interest, to allow people to watch our government at work," the head of Washington's version of C-SPAN says. Besides, he adds conspiratorially, "Hardly anybody watches all the time, but everybody watches from time-to-time. It doesn't matter what your interests are, sooner or later, we hit them."

As audacious as the claim sounds, Heck knows he's right because his station broadcasts everything having to do with state government from floor debates in the Senate, and House committee meetings to gavel-to-gavel coverage of oral arguments before Washington's Supreme Court.

If you're a school teacher, for example, you may not be interested in the transportation committee's discussion of streamlining the environmental permitting process or oral arguments on the doctrine of equivocal subrogation, but you'll stick around for the House Education Committee's public hearing on school accountability legislation. It may be boring, but at least it gives you something to watch while you grade quizzes. If you're short on time during finals week, you can watch a summary of what happened on "Legislative Week in Review."

Its slogan may be “Television that dares to be dull,” but TVW does have one program that would be considered “must-see TV” for anyone who wants the scoop on state government and the personalities behind the issues: Inside Olympia. This weekly hour-long one-on-one interview show between 20-year Olympia veteran Heck and a Washington newsmaker has made for compelling viewing. Although "Inside" only reaches into 3 million homes statewide, the show's guests say things they've never told larger media outlets.

Former Gov. Booth Gardner first announced that he had Parkinson's Disease on the show. State Senator Darlene Fairley told gut-wrenching stories about working as a physician's assistant during the Vietnam War. And Washington Supreme Court Justice Faith Ireland disclosed that she had had a child and given it up for adoption when she was younger.

"I was stunned," the adoptive father of two girls said as he remembered the moment before the show when Ireland told him she might mention it.

Rather than attributing the disclosures to his interviewing skills, Heck credits the length of the show, its $800 living room style set and the intimacy of the studio where a remote control operated camera removes the distraction of crew members filming. "I think they just get real comfortable. They really get caught up in the conversation," he explains.

Ireland says she chose "Inside" because the program isn't edited, eliminating the concern that a guest's comment will be reduced to a sound bite. She also did it because of the host.

"I think Denny has a way of creating an atmosphere of intimacy with the person he's interviewing that takes a lot of the edge off," Ireland said. His reputation also helps. "[He] is someone that's very highly regarded in Olympia as a trustworthy person. He's been around Olympia for a long time."

Twenty-three years, to be exact. At age 24 he was elected to the first of five terms on the State House of Representatives where he became co-chair of the Education Committee and also served as majority leader. He also was Gov. Booth Gardner's chief of staff from 1989 to 1993.

In fact, Heck was looking for something to do after Gardner's term ended when co-worker Stan Marshburn suggested setting up a Washington's own C-SPAN. In May 1993, they launched a two-year lobbying effort that brought TVW and its unedited television coverage of state government deliberations to the air in 1995. In the six years since, the station carried by the state's cable operators has gone from being in 410,000 homes to 3.3 million. The ever-modest Heck admits he's proud that his network has a Web site with the largest repository of streaming media files in the world and that the network has begun producing its own programming.

Although he was also author of the state's Basic Education Act, Heck believes TVW has allowed him to do something politics didn't: make a lasting difference.

"When I left Booth's office in 1993….I'd already learned a painful lesson. Most of what we [politicians] do doesn't last beyond the next term. That frustrates me. It ought to mean more. It ought to last longer," he says.

"I believed if we created this right it would last beyond my tenure, beyond my lifetime." Heck says, adding, "The most important thing about TVW and why it exists is that people have an inherent right to see their government at work. We enable people to watch their government at work and that's a pretty worthwhile way to spend your days."