Picture Fading for C-SPAN Fans as Cable Carriers Seek Ad Revenue: But Complaints Have Some Effect

Article excerpt

When C-SPAN2 was dumped from her local channel lineup, Monica Hunt of Savannah, Ga., suspected her cable company did it for "political" reasons. Faced with the same situation in Springfield, Pa., Eileen Schuler blamed "corporates" bent on controlling what the public sees.

From the other side of the continent, Mark R. Cohen of Santa Monica, Calif., wrote to the same C-SPAN Internet site to bemoan the loss of what he calls "the finger in the dike of Big Brotherism."

C-SPAN fans have been getting upset, to put it mildly, as cash-hungry cable companies around the nation have started bumping off the only channel that offers them an unprocessed view of the federal government.

The protests come as no surprise to media gurus. In a survey published last year by the Center for Media and Public Affairs, C-SPAN ranked as one of the most credible sources of news available - more credible than the major networks and most newspapers.

"There's nothing out there that does anything like what C-SPAN does," said Ted Smith, a journalism professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, a co-author of the survey. "It's the only unedited coverage available of a lot of major political events."

Out of more than 70 million cable-connected homes that had C-SPAN in 1992, the daily diet of congressional proceedings and assorted Washington events has been "disrupted" in about 9 million, according to C-SPAN Director Brian Lamb. In those cases, Mr. Lamb said, cable operators have either cut back the hours for C-SPAN or its companion channel, C-SPAN2, or eliminated either or both of them.

The cancellations have provoked an outpouring of complaints - not only in cyberspace, but in protest movements that have erupted in communities from Seattle to Miami. C-SPAN supporters have formed public-pressure groups in Buffalo, N.Y.; Tucson, Ariz.; Rochester, Minn.; Vancouver, Wash.; and two cities in California.

"The citizenry out there in these communities start petition drives, write letters to the editor. And if they're persistent enough, they can get us back," Mr. Lamb said.

In many cases, they've already succeeded. Mr. Lamb said C-SPAN has regained more than 3 million of the homes that had lost the service around the country.

It may seem difficult to explain that kind of public outcry for a television channel that, even Mr. Lamb acknowledges, many people find about as exciting as "watching paint dry." C-SPAN's slow pace and long silences have made it the butt of jokes.

"There tends to be 10 percent of the population that cares deeply about this stuff - that watches us all the time and makes it part of their daily lives," Mr. …