C-SPAN has been heralded along with CNN by media critics as a smart choice for television viewers who want to stay briefed on the events in the Persian Gulf. The only problem is, after more than a decade, many people still aren't quite sure what C-SPAN is.
"The majority of people don't know anything about C-SPAN--who owns it, who runs it, how it got there," said Brian Lamb, the cable network's founder and chief executive officer.
"The biggest misperception of all is that C-SPAN is somehow owned and operated by the federal government, and that's a notion we have vigorously tried to set the record straight on. C-SPAN was created by the cable industry as a public service."
The Cable Satellite Public Affairs Network, as it is formally known, was established in 1979 with funding from the cable television industry to provide live, gavel-to-gavel coverage of the U.S. House of Representatives. In 1986, C-SPAN II was added to cablecast sessions of the U.S. Senate in their entirety.
What started out as a novelty has turned into something of a cult among political insiders. "It really is television for the record," said Washington Post TV columnist John Carmody. "All the others filter news through somebody. This is the real straight dope. It's certainly got political reality in Washington, without any fig leaf at all."
C-SPAN's profile was heightened during the Jan. 10 congressional debate on authorization of military force in the Persian Gulf, as cable operators were scrambling for the network's complete Senate coverage. C-SPAN II, with 22.3 million subscribers compared to C-SPAN's 51.7 million, swelled by 9.3 million households as 240 cable systems bumped other programming to temporarily pick up the service.
But the coverage didn't end with the congressional debates. The network's Gulf War coverage includes nightly military briefings, major news, anti- and pro-war rallies, pool footage of military operations and loads of expert analysis and commentary.
C-SPAN specializes in viewer call-in programs. When war broke out, the network put on an endless stream of viewer telephone calls around-the-clock.
"Our first instinct was to open the telephone lines and listen to the public for a long time, because we are not a primary source of basic news," Lamb said. "We are an alternative to the other networks. . . . The last thing this country needs is another copy of what they see on four other channels."
C-SPAN spokeswoman Rayne Pollack calls the network "the place where the nation can come and hold a town meeting."
KFI-AM (640) talk show host Tom Leykis, who hosted a version of his radio program on C-SPAN last month, said: "The best part of C-SPAN is not the talk shows by any stretch. It's watching the Senate and the House. It's seeing how the government works. When I was in Washington, C-SPAN to the community there was like MTV is to us in Hollywood. They all watch it. They all watch each other on it."
The building that houses C-SPAN's small staff of 170 employees is just two blocks from the Capitol in the Hall of States Building. "You can see the dome of the Capitol from our offices, which is always a reminder to us where our roots are," said vice president Susan Swain.
She pointed out that C-SPAN's low annual budget of $15 million "would be in the same neighborhood if you added up the salaries of the three network news anchors." C-SPAN's operations are so lean that Lamb and Swain double as on-air interviewers. The five other on-air talents also have dual jobs behind the scenes; one is C-SPAN's legal counsel.
"We're funded by the cable industry, and for us to stick around our value has to be in excess of our cost," Lamb said. "If we lose sight of that there will be a great deal of friction between the people who pay our bills and those of us who run the network."
The Washington Post has reported that the three broadcast networks used C-SPAN's long-form coverage as an excuse to cut back on their own reporting of political routine.
One drawback of C-SPAN's one-camera style of television is that it's not always the most exciting to watch. In large part, C-SPAN consists of an electronic population of talking heads.
"C-SPAN is a marvelous little instrument, tremendously more valuable than CNN and the like," Carmody of the Washington Post said. "Whether it's boring or not, that's something else again. Its limitation is its entertainment quotient, and the medium is essentially entertainment. You have to sift through C-SPAN. I must confess, listening to someone drone on, I want the camera to cut to the audience sometimes to see if they're fairing any better than I am."
Many critics have suggested that perhaps C-SPAN's most valuable asset is its detailed documentation of historical events. The network works closely with high schools across the nation to integrate C-SPAN programming as an educational tool. Aware of C-SPAN's enormous educational possibilities, Lamb began compiling a videotape archive four years ago, now 50,000 tapes strong, at Purdue University in Lafayette, Ind.
"We look at ourselves as a repository for history," Lamb said. "The history of the moment will always be there on videotape."