The
story of
C-SPAN:
The network that opened the window into Washington
and changed political journalism forever

Founding--and Funding

“Take 17,” said the ABC cameraman. The news anchor held up his microphone-again.

And again, as he did, a group of college students jumped to their feet, waving placards and shouting war protests. When the cameraman had all that he needed, the students sat down and resumed what had essentially been a 'quiet protest,' according to Brian Lamb. Lamb was 24 years old at the time—and working as a Pentagon press officer assigned to monitor the protesters.

Only a few commercial broadcast stations existed in the 1970's. “It was my first national education with the three networks... it made me angry,” Lamb said, explaining that he felt viewers would get a completely different picture of the days events, were they to know about the semi-fabricated protest.

He went on to jobs in the White House and at a cable industry magazine, but the Pentagon scene and others like it still bothered Lamb. He started to imagine a public affairs network that would tell the whole story of Washington, not boil the news down to quick--and shallow--sound bites like the ones used in the evening news.

It took years of persuasive talks with cable affiliates, key members of congress and other stakeholders to launch the Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network (C-SPAN). Many members were skittish about being watched at all times, but Speaker Tip O'Neill gave his stamp of approval- a decision made easier by the fact that the proposed network would be funded entirely by the cable industry, using no taxpayer dollars whatsoever (a formula that still holds true today).

On March 19, 1979, 3.5 million cable subscribers across the country gained access to proceedings in the House chamber for the first time as then-Representative Al Gore gave the first televised floor speech: “Television will change this institution, Mr. Speaker, but the good will far outweigh the bad.”

According to C-SPAN.org, "when the House and Senate are in session, C-SPAN commits to covering both bodies in their entirety, without interruption or editing. This is a voluntary commitment; there is no contract with Congress to carry proceedings."

One Day at a Time

“We just took it one day at a time,” Lamb says. “But there was a time when I thought we wouldn't make it.”

The first C-SPAN 'studio' set doubled as a business office, complete with typewriter. The backdrop was carpeting stapled to a plywood frame, and the wooden letters spelling 'C-SPAN'--all of which are now house in the Newseum in Washington, D.C.--had a tendency to fall during live guest interviews.

The non-profit ran on the definition of a shoestring budget. “We just took it one day at a time,” Lamb says. “But there was a time when I thought we wouldn't make it.” If an employee needed an electric cord, they brought it from home.

C-SPAN was available on hundreds of cable systems, but needed more in order to become sustainable. In 1988 its budget was only $10.5 million. (Networks like CBS ran on $348 million.) Cable operators were forced to choose between giving channel space to C-SPAN, a public service, or using the space for another channel that would bring in advertising revenue. Until 1982, it broadcast only during the day, sharing satellite space with the Madison Square Garden channel, which took over the channel at night.

Although cablecasting of House proceedings began on C-SPAN in 1979, the U.S. Senate refused to allow cameras to cover its proceedings for another seven years- a position supported by Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia until he was introduced at a local district event as the Speaker of the House. C-SPAN2 was born- and Sen. Byrd was present for the 'flipping of the switch' in 1986.

Expanding and Preserving

“There’s no deniability anymore. We don’t just rely upon the memory of reporters and secondhand reports in newspapers, because the original remarks are recorded and easily accessible.” -Robert Browning, Director of the C-SPAN Archives

The brand continued to grow. The next year the network launched C-SPAN Classroom, a resource for teachers. A few years after that, came the C-SPAN School Bus--a traveling mobile studio perfect for taking 'the C-SPAN message' to students across the country (it took the bus about 3 ½ years to visit all 50 states, including Hawaii).

Lamb, observing that much public policy was introduced and debated in the form of nonfiction books, started a signature author-interview program in 1989 called Booknotes which ran for 14 years. That same year also saw the first of many C-SPAN spoofs on NBC's Saturday Night Live sketch comedy show.

But the network had a major decision to make. It was providing a unique service to the media and the public- complete coverage of the House and Senate- but wasn't saving tapes of what they aired. Sometimes, in order to save money, the nonprofit re-used tapes. Robert Browning, then a political science professor, remembers sitting down for coffee in the student union with Lamb at Purdue University—Lamb's alma mater and Browning's employer—to discuss it. Lamb told the group the he would be 'tickled' to find a place for C-SPAN footage to be stored, and that the task was too big for a non-profit- but the perfect project for a university.

Today, the C-SPAN Archives—comprised of everything the network has aired since 1987--live at www.c-span.org. More than 200,000 hours of archived content are available for free to students, reporters and the general public. According to Browning who now directs a staff of 13 at the Archives' location in West Lafayette, it's the largest accessible political archive in the world.

Something is Different

Unlike most TV anchors, C-SPAN hosts don't take cues from producers via earpiece, leaving them free to guide the conversation with callers and guests.

Today, C-SPAN employs 285 people and occupies two floors in the Hall of States building located just northwest of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. Its annual budget of $70 million continues to be dwarfed by those of other networks'. It is still forced to retransmit the House and Senate feeds, controlled by each chamber, rather than installing their own cameras.

Other events are covered from beginning to end, with as little editorial commentary (and as much viewer commentary) as possible. Lamb, who still hosts a Sunday night interview program called Q&A, doesn't talk about himself- despite appearing more than 4,600 times in the C-SPAN archives.

Key to maintaining its nonpartisan attitude are a team of C-SPAN hosts- and just as with Lamb, it's tough to find footage of any of them speaking their own names on the air. Instead, they emphasize the conversation that the program creates between elected officials, experts and the viewers.

“A lot of times, if you watch our format, they'll say, 'I want to go back to what the caller from Columbus said two calls ago, because I think he or she is wrong or right or whatever,'” said Pedro Echevarria, who has worked as a host (or 'facilitator') on C-SPAN's Washington Journal for 12 years. “I think it's a lot more engaging, in a sense, because other interview formats on other networks... you see a conversation and you don't really get to get involved in it. In this case, you're directly involved in it.”

A study of C-SPAN call-in shows was published in 2002 in Journalism & Mass Communications Quarterly. It found that nearly a third of callers presented new political information in their calls--and that citizens "view calling a talk show as real political activity, engaging in solving political problems."

What's Next

Contrary to what many Americans believe, C-SPAN doesn't receive any government funding—nor does it control the cameras in the House and Senate. Instead, the leadership in each chamber provides the two feeds to the networks, which adds graphics and airs the feeds to subscribers. In addition, the U.S. Supreme Court remains closed to cameras.

C-SPAN has repeatedly asked to install cameras in all three institutions- the House, the Senate and the Supreme Court- and has been denied each time.Still, the network's impact on American journalism is unmistakeable.

Arthur Santana, Ph.D., is a former Washington Post reporter who now teaches journalism at the University of Houston. He has studied C-SPAN and its use of social media.

According to Santana, the network—and especially its archives—allow reporters to hold politicians accountable by matching past comments with present-day votes. “Ultimately, reporters are better off with access to the C-SPAN archives, and since that translates to better-informed public, the public is better off, too,” he said.

But, as Lamb first envisioned, C-SPAN is also a conduit for the general public to watch the drama of Washington unfold- without the filter of a news outlet condensing what is happening, said Santana.

“Though not everyone watches C-SPAN, I think at some fundamental level, most people are at least comforted by the idea that C-SPAN is covering politicians and that that coverage is available anytime via the C-SPAN video library... At a practical level, the {“freedom of the press”} clause is on full display in C-SPAN’s famous gavel-to-gavel coverage.”