The network tapped veteran journalist Steve Walters for its flagship show, Newsmakers.
Like most things at the State Capitol, the public affairs network WisconsinEye was profoundly affected by the massive street protests over Gov. Scott Walker's Act 10 in early 2011.
"The cable companies told us that a few times we beat out prime-time TV in the ratings," says WisconsinEye president and chief executive officer Jon Henkes. "We peaked at something like 2 million hits."
While thousands rallied on the Capitol grounds in 2011, thousands more from around the world were able to watch the fiery floor votes and marathon committee hearings live, thanks to WisconsinEye's "gavel to gavel" coverage of state government. For many, it was their introduction to the network, which is available at Charter Channel 995, Time Warner 363 and at wiseye.org.
Since then, says Henkes, "We've been focused on getting them to consistently come back."
As the national spotlight wanes on the protests over Walker's union-busting budget bill, WisconsinEye has increased its content well beyond a bird's-eye view of lawmakers in action.
The nonprofit network has produced over a dozen original series, all focused on the civic life of Wisconsin, which, with its bitterly divided electorate, is arguably the most partisan state in the country. This year, the network established itself as a comprehensive source for election coverage, interviewing more than 130 candidates and providing evenhanded campaign analysis from policy experts, academics and journalists. All the interviews are archived on the network's website.
"We've done more [election-related] video than any other media entity in the state," Henkes says.
The organization also this summer launched a $5.5 million capital campaign, designed to raise funds for current operations and new ventures, says Henkes.
The network is hypersensitive to any claims of political bias and has largely remained neutral, even as its has raised eyebrows for getting financial support from some high-profile conservatives.
Says Henkes: "From the beginning, we've been committed to balanced content, and that goes for our board and funding sources too."
In 2007, nearly a decade after the state Legislature recommended an independent entity be charged with providing video coverage of lawmakers on the Assembly and Senate floors, WisconsinEye formally launched.
Although commissioned by the state, WisconsinEye received no tax funds to operate, and would never have gotten off the ground without the support of one politically red-hot donor, Beloit billionaire and ABC Building Supply magnate Diane Hendricks.
One of the richest people in Wisconsin, Hendricks was relatively unknown until she was caught on video asking a newly elected Scott Walker whether Wisconsin would ever become a "right-to-work" state. Walker's famous answer was that the "first step" was to "divide and conquer" the public employee unions.
Hendricks later made the single largest campaign donation in state history, giving Walker $500,000 during the 2012 recall elections, when campaign donation limits did not apply.
Hendricks and her late husband, Ken, were even more generous when WisconsinEye's Jon Henkes and former Gov. Tommy Thompson asked the couple to help start the nonprofit network in 2003. After donating $1 million to WisconsinEye in 2006, Hendricks told the Beloit Daily News that she was "very committed to seeing this work."
She remains a loyal supporter of WisconsinEye and is a longstanding member of its board of directors, chaired by former Republican Lt. Gov. Margaret Farrow.
The board also includes school choice advocates Renee Bartelt and Susan Mitchell; WPS Health Insurance CEO Jim Riordan; Capitol lobbyist Brandon Scholz; former state senator and loyal Democrat Mark Meyer; John Laabs, former head of the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association Foundation; Edgewood College business professor David Sanks; Charter Communications executive Jeff Snell; and Madison software developer Bob Vanden Burgt.
Despite the network's mission to tell "stories of our public life, with an independent, nonpartisan perspective," WisconsinEye has found its coverage being used in some obviously partisan ways. That's in part because the network gets total access to government proceedings.
In the fall of 2013, state Senate President Mike Ellis (R-Neenah) was caught by the network banging his gavel and barking at a legislator to "sit down" during debate on a restrictive abortion bill.
Planned Parenthood removed the footage, but replaced it from a different source: Madison DJ Nick Nice, who had been recording WisconsinEye's feed and posting highlights on his YouTube page.
Planned Parenthood allies say the network shouldn't try to control how footage is used.
"It is not the role of WisconsinEye to insert themselves into the debate and take a side as to what happened," Jenni Dye, former executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Wisconsin, said at the time. "Instead, their footage should be available and should be widely shared so that citizens can make their own judgment about what their legislators are doing on the clock."
The flap forced WisconsinEye to reassess its content protection policies, says Henkes, adding that this problem isn't unique to the network.
"C-SPAN is having the same discussion right now," he says.
A platform for all
While most media ignore fringe candidates, WisconsinEye provides equal time to independents and third-party candidates.
The network's flagship show Newsmakers, hosted by veteran journalist Steve Walters, explores the pressing issues of the day without the political rancor common at the Capitol. Walters says WisconsinEye's long-form format affords his guests the opportunity to discuss their positions without resorting to 15-second soundbites. He's interviewed five candidates for governor, two with the last name Burke.
In addition to live footage of the Legislature and the Supreme Court, WisconsinEye has produced original programs on Wisconsin history, profiled state businesses and chronicled the workings of local media. Even the state's paper of record, the Wisconsin State Journal, doesn't come close to rivaling the sheer volume of history preserved at wiseye.org.
Says Walters: "We're definitely contributing to the flow of news out of the Capitol."
Despite the service it provides, WisconsinEye has yet to get a cent from state government. That's why the station's capital campaign fund is critical. Henkes says former Govs. Thompson and Jim Doyle have both been instrumental in raising money.
It has been a relatively quiet campaign. But if it's successful, WisconsinEye will be on stable ground and poised to launch new efforts.
"If we raise the money, we secure the next three years of operations, and then we are going to put a lot of energy into developing earned-income streams," Henkes says.
One possibility is to capitalize on its archives. "We know we can earn some money out of our archive," Henkes says. "But we need time to do that."
On the network's wish list is software to enable streaming on mobile devices. WisconsinEye is also looking to have a presence in classrooms with civics-minded programming.
"One of our goals and dreams is to eventually create a balanced civics curriculum," Henkes says. "We're excited about expanding our reach in the years to come."