At the time this article was written Gordon
Barnhart was Clerk of the Saskatchewan Legislative Assembly.
March 17, 1983, marked not only the opening
of the second session of the twentieth legislature, but it was the beginning of
television broadcasts from the Legislative Assembly of Saskatchewan. Television
in Canadian parliaments is not a new concept. The idea has been debated at
several Commonwealth Parliamentary Association conferences and television
systems have been in place in several legislatures and the House of Commons for
some time now. The uniqueness of the Saskatchewan experience is that the
televising is being done by an automated computer-driven television system of
five remote control cameras located unobtrusively in the Chamber. Three cameras
are controlled by pre-set camera shots stored in the computer. Most of the
switching is done by the computer, activated by the sound system switcher.
The Saskatchewan legislature is the first
parliament in the world to use an automated switching system for television.
Innovation and experimentation in legislative broadcasting is not new to
Saskatchewan. In 1946, the legislature was the first in Canada and second only
to New Zealand in the Commonwealth to broadcast its proceedings over radio. At
first, there were only two microphones used which were passed from speaker to
speaker by the pages.
In 1947 the assembly became the first
legislature in the Commonwealth to produce an "electronic Hansard."
Rather than having shorthand reporters record the proceedings, a dictaphone
recorder with wax belts was used with great success. (See article by George
Stephen in The Table. Vol. XV, 1946).
In each of these examples, necessity was the
mother of invention. Since the population of Saskatchewan in the 1940s was
sparse and thinly spread over a vast distance, it was felt that radio could
bring the parliament to the people if the people could not come to the
Likewise, shorthand reporters in
Saskatchewan were hard to find in sufficient numbers and on a part time basis
to cover the sessions. This difficulty led to a will to experiment with new
technology the forerunner of our current tape recorders.
The automated television system also grew
out of a need to provide coverage on a sessional basis (less than six months of
session time per year) at a reasonable cost. One way to accomplish this was to
devise a method which required few personnel and minimum operating costs. The
end result was a system which requires a total of three people to operate it –
a Director of Television Services, and two technician/operators. If a staff
complement of thirty or forty people was required on a year-round basis to
provide six months of service, the concept of a television service, operated by
legislative employees, would not have been practical.
The decision to proceed with
"computerized television" was not made quickly. Television in the
legislature was debated and considered frequently over the last decade. The
first formal study of the concept was initiated in 1975. A committee on Rules
and Procedures was established and instructed to "review the feasibility
of televising the proceedings of the Legislative Assembly." The committee
reviewed the system used in Alberta where the media were invited into the
chamber to record, on film or tape, proceedings of their choice. At this time,
the House of Commons was initiating an experiment in televising its proceedings
by means of a parliamentary television system. The Saskatchewan committee
favoured the Ottawa model in principle and favoured prohibiting the media from coming
onto the floor of the House with their cameras. However, a legislative owned
and operated television system had very definite disadvantages a high initial
capital cost and, with the prospect of having approximately twenty or thirty
personnel a high annual operating cost. There was also a lack of cable
companies in existence in the province at that time and thus no means of
distributing the legislative proceedings to the public on a daily
gavel-to-gavel basis. These obstacles caused the Saskatchewan Committee to
recommend that the Legislative Assembly not proceed with television "at
The assembly renewed its study of the
television question in 1979. By this time, the chamber had been refurbished and
a new sound system installed. Much of the refurbishment and the sound system
was done with an eye to the coming of television cameras. The 1979 committee
noted that since the 1976 report, cable companies in Saskatchewan cities had
been established and thus provided a means of distribution. The new models of
television cameras required much less light (approximately 35 foot candies as
compared to the previous requirement of 120 foot candies) which eliminated the
need for bright hot lights and the disruption of the historic atmosphere of the
legislative chamber. The biggest breakthrough, however, was that technology was
now available to provide an automated system thus drastically reducing the
annual operation costs. In December 1980, the Rules Committee recommended that
the Legislative Assembly proceed with an in-house television system modelled on
the Ottawa system but with the computer option added. In agreeing to this
recommendation, the Legislative Assembly opted for recording and broadcasting
the complete proceedings and not just the highlights thus offering coverage of
all members of the Assembly. This decision was not a unanimous one and in fact
many of the cabinet ministers of the day, (ones who would have the most
coverage), opposed television in the legislature. The decision was carried by
the private members on both sides of the house.
Once the decision was made to proceed, three
projects were begun immediately. The lighting was upgraded. Previously, most of
the lighting in the chamber came from a skylight above the chamber which
consisted of banks of fluorescent tubes. This means of lighting was costly to
maintain and provided insufficient light. The fluorescent system was replaced
with metal halide lamps thus increasing the light levels in the chamber to
approximately 35 foot candies (still a very acceptable and comfortable level)
without affecting its physical appearance.
The second project was to fit five cameras
into the walls of the chamber without affecting its historic appearance. One
camera was recessed into each of the tour corners of the chamber and one was
recessed into the woodwork over the main entrance facing the Speaker's dais.
The cameras move silently and are without tally lights. To the casual observer,
the cameras are not obvious.
The third project was to design the
equipment and a television control centre (TCC). A team of local engineering,
electrical and acoustical consultants were contracted together with the firm of
Applied Electronics in Toronto. This team designed the system by using Ikegami
cameras (Japanese), Schneider lenses (West German), Vinton computer and servo
units (British) and Canadian electronic equipment. A former broom closet
adjacent to the Chamber was converted into a well lit, environmentally
controlled and aesthetically pleasing control centre large enough to hold all
of the television and audio equipment and three personnel.
By the fall of 1982, the system was in place
and ready for testing and operator training. The fall portion of the session
served as a necessary test and training period. The performance of the
equipment exceeded our original expectations. In the design stage, we felt that
a five to seven second time lag for the automated cameras to get into position
would be acceptable. In practice, the serve, cameras are into position and
focused in less than two seconds a performance that has silenced the critics
who claimed that an automated system would not be as fast as a manually
The camera facing the Speaker and the two cameras
in the corners to his immediate left and right are microprocessor controlled
cameras. When the Speaker is on his feet, the camera facing him is on. When the
Speaker recognizes a member, the audio switcher activates that member's
microphone. The fact that a certain microphone is active automatically
stimulates the appropriate servo camera to tilt, pan, zoom and focus on the
member on his feet. When the camera is ready (usually within one second), the
computer automatically switches to program the camera which is trained on the
member who is speaking. The name of the member and the constituency he
represents appears automatically on the screen for five seconds. This process
is repeated as different members rise to speak. The two remote control manual cameras
are used for alternate shots for variety, for broad applause shots and for
divisions. The system is capable of keeping up with the fast pace of the House
during Oral Question Period.
With all of this automation, why are even
three people needed to operate the system? Fine adjustments of the cameras as
the speaking member moves in his place, selection of manual shots for variety
for the viewer and replacement of audio video tapes each hour keep the
operators busy. The operators who are qualified electronic technicians are also
responsible for maintenance and repair of the equipment. The Director has been
consumed by his daily duties and liaison with members, caucus staff and news
Since the Saskatchewan telecast does not
have a broadcaster/host like the Quebec or Ottawa broadcasts, factual
information concerning the proceedings of the Legislative Assembly is shown in
print across the bottom of the screen from time to time, eg.
"Consideration of Estimates of the Department of Education Committee of
The total cost of the television system and
necessary renovations was approximately $1.5 million with a projected operating
cost of $100,000 per year to cover salaries and the cost of the video
The Legislative Assembly has established a
set of guidelines for the broadcasts. Only the member who is on his or her feet
is to be shown with a head and shoulders or a medium close-up shot. Some of the
members who are seated around the member speaking can also be seen. Split
screen shots are not permitted. "Applause" shots may be used as long
as they are "in good taste and reflect the decorum of the Chamber."
One complete set of audio video cassettes for the session is to be stored
permanently in the Provincial Archives. Audio video tapes cannot be used during
a general election or by-election in the province. Members may take copies of
their own speeches but if they wish to use a copy of another member speaking in
the Legislative Assembly, they must have the permission of that member.
The media have access to recording
facilities in the press gallery or copies of tapes can be made later by the
television personnel. The Legislative Assembly has installed a fibre optic link
to Sask Tel Television Operations Centre in Regina and a microwave link to Saskatoon.
The media, either broadcaster or cablecaster, may pick up a live feed from Sask
Tel's Television Operations Centre.
Now that we have been telecasting for almost
a month, the cablecasters in Regina and Saskatoon have shown each complete
sitting of the legislature. Four more cable companies in other cities were
connected on April 11, 1983. The present distribution cost of this signal, paid
by the Legislative Assembly, will be approximately $21,000 per month during the
session. In the not too distant future, it is reasonable to believe that all
cablecasters in Saskatchewan will be carrying the complete legislative
For special events such as the Speech from
the Throne and Budget Speech, the broadcast networks have shown live coverage
and indicate a keen interest to continue to do so, thus giving the entire
province an opportunity to watch the Legislative Assembly in action. Most
broadcasters in the province have access to a daily feed in order to prepare
news clips for the evening and late night newscasts. One broadcaster has begun
a weekly report on the legislative proceedings.
The telecasters are pleased with the signal
they are receiving and with the positive public reaction to the legislative
coverage. It is hard yet to accurately assess the public reaction or to know
how many viewers are watching the proceedings. I have heard a few viewers say
that the legislature is a "zoo" wild, exciting but frivolous. Others
have shown appreciation at being able to watch firsthand. Saskatchewan's elected
members debate public issues without depending on any interpretation from the
press. The Saskatchewan electorate has traditionally been well informed and
interested in public issues. An average turnout at the polls of over 80% of the
registered voters confirms this keen interest. Television will offer the
electorate another means of following the debate in the Legislature.
What has the reaction of members been to
having television cameras in the assembly? The introduction of the cameras and
the test period without broadcasting was spread over several months. By the
time the broadcasts began, most members were not conscious of the cameras. It
is too early to assess what effect television will have on the proceedings.
Many members (but not all) have begun clapping instead of pounding their desks
to show approval. Members have been moving around to fill empty desks
surrounding a speaking member thus creating a "full house" effect at
all times. Other than these cosmetic changes, the heat and flavour of debate
has not changed. The business of the Assembly goes on. Since the cameras are
constantly in operation, it is less tempting to play to the audience than with
radio which is on for only a portion of the daily proceedings (75 minutes each
day of the two major debates address-in-reply and budget debate).
Some members are still apprehensive about
television in the assembly and a few still oppose the concept. By and large,
members have already accepted television in the chamber and value the,
opportunity to speak more directly to their electorate. A common philosophy has
developed "just forget that the cameras are there ... but don't forget
that the cameras are there."
The installation of the television system is
not the final step in a project but in itself will lead to further steps.
Already the Assembly is considering broadening its distribution throughout
Saskatchewan and extending the coverage to some of the Standing Committees. At
the time of writing, no decisions have been made in these fields but it is conceivable
that our present system will be expanded over time.
The television system in Saskatchewan has
taken advantage of the 'State of the art" in electronics and is operated
with a minimum of personnel who can be productively occupied even while the
legislature is not sitting. The need to bring the proceedings to people spread
throughout the province at a minimum of cost led to the development of the
system now in place. The legislative committee concluded its report on
television by stating that the television installation. . . will offer a good
quality audio and video tape of the proceedings for use by the conventional
television stations in their news broadcasts and current affairs programs and
will provide the opportunity for many of the citizens of Saskatchewan to watch
the proceedings of the Legislative Assembly thus serving to strengthen the
bonds between the electorate and their representative body." The first
part of this prediction has been achieved. The goal of strengthening the bond
between the elected and the electorate is one that must always be pursued. A
combination of radio and television broadcasts will help to achieve that goal.