Gavel-to-Gavel Congressional Television Coverage as Political Advertising: The Impact of C-Span on Legislative Sessions

Article excerpt


This article examines the effect of television on the length of legislative sessions at the federal level in the United States. Data from the U.S. Congress during the period 1972-96 are employed, during part of which time each house of Congress received significant television coverage by C-SPAN and C-SPAN2. Evidence from a Parks regression suggests that the presence of C-SPAN has increased House sessions by 88-250 hours and the presence of C-SPAN2 has increased Senate sessions by a striking 252-431 hours, other things constant. Additional estimates suggest that House sessions are about two minutes longer per bill introduced under the eye of C-SPAN, and Senate sessions are about four minutes longer per bill introduced in the presence of C-SPAN2. Longer sessions, which represent low-cost forms of advertising for incumbents, are not without costs to taxpayers. We estimate that these costs lie somewhere between $16 million and $392 million in real terms per session of Congress. (JEL D72, H11)


As Grain and Goff (1988) point out, the number of political "watchers" ("C-SPAN junkies") seems to be on the rise from a 1986 estimate of 40 million. Since 1986, the Grain and Goff (1988) study has been the only significant empirical study of the impact of television on representative democracy despite the potential availability of relevant data and statistical techniques. The purpose of the present article is to partially fill the void concerning the impact of television on the democratic process by concentrating on the effect of television on the length of legislative sessions in the U.S. Congress. This study makes use of a "voter shopping" construct that analyzes political services as search/experience goods and employs data from the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate during the period 1972-96, during some of which time each branch of Congress received significant television coverage by C-SPAN or C-SPAN2.


As Grain and Goff (1988) point out, the theory of product advertising parallels the theory of information as in Stigler (1961) and Nelson (1970, 1974). These articles define search goods as goods for which consumer judgments about quality or performance can be made prior to purchase and experience goods as those for which consumer judgments about product quality/performance can be made only after purchase. Nelson points out that information regarding experience good (search good) quality can be obtained by consumers at high cost (low cost). For experience goods, ads contain cues ("indirect") on the reputation of the seller, which is verifiable at low cost and from which the buyer can make inferences regarding product quality. [1]

Crain and Goff (1988) point out that one point of view in the literature holds that political services are like search goods because candidates' records are available to voters for verification and evaluation at low cost. On the other hand, it might be costly for voters to gather information on candidates prior to an election and/or difficult for voters to draw inferences about the future behavior of politicians, which suggests that political services are experience goods (Crain and Goff, 1988, 11). In this regard, any technological advancement that changes the costs of information gathering by voters will alter the nature of political services as in Crain and Goff (1988, 19). Because televising legislative proceedings lowers the cost of evaluating a politician's "advertised qualities" against his or her "actual qualities," political services would be more like search goods.

It is within this framework that we analyze the impact of television on the length of legislative sessions. However, we argue that there are differences in this regard with state-level legislatures, which were analyzed by Crain and Goff (1988), and the U. …


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