03.31.09

Washington's Longest-Running Reality Show

Thirty years after its founding, C-SPAN may be the butt of many jokes, but the network’s endurance and brilliant business model should make it worthy of praise.

There is so much financial distress and diminished content in the media landscape these days that the 30th anniversary of C-SPAN (Cable Satellite Public Affairs Network) is an occasion worthy of breaking out the bubbly. While the focus now is on new models for news and information, C-SPAN is a venerable enterprise, albeit unique, that demonstrates what ingenuity can accomplish.

C-SPAN is a congenitally self-effacing outfit, so it was a surprise to learn from a Hart Research poll commissioned by the network that 39 million Americans—20 percent of cable households—are regular viewers, which means at least once or twice a week. A few days later, National Public Radio announced that its audience had reached record levels, with 20.9 million listeners a week to its news programming. By these numbers, NPR’s Morning Edition now has a daily audience substantially larger than both Good Morning America and the Today show.

C-SPAN is a congenitally self-effacing outfit, so it was a surprise to learn from a Hart Research poll commissioned by the network that 39 million Americans—20 percent of cable households—are regular viewers, which means at least once or twice a week.

I had long believed that public radio was becoming a mass medium, with fans nationwide and a business model of membership, sponsorship, and philanthropy that gives it long-term viability in the transforming world of quality distribution. But I pretty much assumed that the C-SPAN audience was a small and earnest American subculture of political junkies and (my favorites) fans of nonfiction books who watch C-SPAN’s Book TV on weekends. The Hart poll seems to show that the audience actually is substantial—although not comparable to the cumulative numbers of those who tune in to the flamboyant commercial cable-news networks whose stars are the subjects of incessant discussion. (Will Chris Matthews run for the Senate? Can Jim Cramer survive Jon Stewart’s opprobrium? Are Bill O’Reilly’s “ ambushes” beyond the pale?)

By contrast, a signature feature of C-SPAN is that its anchors are deliberately low-key to the point that Brian Lamb, the network’s founder and most familiar face, has never uttered his own name on the air.

Over the years, I have come to know C-SPAN well as a viewer, an occasional guest, and publisher of the books generated from material in its capacious archives, most recently Abraham Lincoln: Great American Historians on Our Sixteenth President. I am so aware of what C-SPAN does and how it works that the marginal role assigned to it in discussions over the future of information strikes me as a serious oversight. Yes, the razzle-dazzle of commercial news is more exciting and the social networking of Internet-based technologies is edgier. But the nonprofit, public-service nature of C-SPAN is a much more important and probably more enduring contribution to national knowledge than is generally recognized. There is a lot to learn from the story of C-SPAN. Here, in brief, is a recap of how it came about.

In the 1970s, Brian Lamb worked in the White House Office of Telecommunication Policy and later was Washington bureau chief for Cablevision magazine. At the time, cable television was rapidly expanding, but the amount of programming available was relatively small. So Lamb found some willing partners among cable operators when he proposed the concept of airing what he called “public affairs” programming. The notion got a huge boost when Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neill agreed to allow the broadcast of the House of Representatives. Thus enabled, C-SPAN went on the air on March 19, 1979.

The key to Lamb’s funding insight was that the cable industry would support C-SPAN by funneling a tiny portion of its proceeds from subscribers and would oversee its operations with a board drawn from the industry. Today, about a nickel per cable subscriber goes to pay for three networks, a radio station in Washington, D.C., that is also on satellite radio, and a Web site that stores vast amounts of material and provides extensive video replays. The current budget for all this activity is $55 million. At the time of its 20th anniversary, that figure was $33 million. This amount of money would barely cover the salaries of the half-dozen highest paid news celebrities on cable and network news. C-SPAN is an astounding bargain.

One of the major misconceptions about C-SPAN is that it is somehow government funded. C-SPAN reports that it has received $872 million from fees paid by cable and satellite companies since its founding, and zero from federal funds. The pennies we pay to receive C-SPAN are a fraction of the cost per subscriber for ESPN, Fox News, and the NBC channels, which also have substantial advertising revenue and therefore are doing fine, even in these parlous times.

Do not be misled. The C-SPAN journey has not been as smooth as this summary may sound. At various times, cable providers moved to bump C-SPAN in favor of more lucrative channels. Notwithstanding that it televises a broad swath of official and government activity, C-SPAN has no regulatory right to stay on the air. What has kept it going all these years is the support of audiences who, by definition, include many politically aware and outspoken Americans, across the full ideological spectrum. What I find most inspiring about C-SPAN is that it succeeds outside what are thought of as conventional measures of celebrity, notoriety, and controversy. C-SPAN obviously isn’t for everybody, but then what of real value ever is?

Peter Osnos is a senior fellow for media at The Century Foundation. Osnos is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs Books. He is vice chairman of the Columbia Journalism Review, a former publisher at Random House, and was a correspondent and editor at the Washington Post.