I Want My C-SPAN

By Sanford, Bruce W. | Federal Communications Law Journal, May 2003 | Go to article overview

I Want My C-SPAN


Sanford, Bruce W., Federal Communications Law Journal


A few years ago, Brian Lamb, the founder and public face of C-SPAN, was asked during an interview about Newton Minow's famous indictment of American television. If anyone in the communications industry today has the credentials to brush aside the question, it is Lamb, who reinvented public affairs programming over the last two decades. C-SPAN now reaches approximately eighty million U.S. households--one in twenty Americans watches it regularly. (1) The producers of The Bachelor would envy its demographics. C-SPAN is "reality TV" that even Minow would have loved.

But despite his successes, Lamb did not scoff at the question. "I think [Minow] was right about an enormous amount of television," Lamb replied in the 1999 interview. "[B]ut I think you could say that about an enormous amount of things American. One person's wasteland is another person's great pleasure." (2)

The journalist who kicks off the political day with Washington Journal and has provided a forum for hundreds of authors on Booknotes, expanded on his answer:

   One of the hardest things for us to understand is that everybody is
   not going to listen to opera, they're not all going to listen to
   symphony orchestras, they're not all going to read The New York
   Times. I don't care if it was immediately available to everybody,
   it just wouldn't appeal to everybody. And it's really hard in the
   end what people choose, especially if you have a kind of lofty view
   of what's good and bad. (3)

Lamb has grown a business devoted to public affairs programming at a time when the government, thanks to some key court decisions and eventual Federal Communications Commission deregulation, has been pushed out of the business of telling broadcasters how much and what kind of news coverage is required of them. Since launching C-SPAN in the 1970s, he has pointed the cameras at our national political life and made it both informative and profitable at the same time. C-SPAN now runs three cable channels, a radio station, and an Internet site. The ghost of Minow is not haunting Lamb, that is for sure.

I recently served as a moderator for a conference at the National Press Club relating to media coverage of the global war on terrorism. The room could only accommodate 100 people but C-SPAN's cameras gave us a national audience. As one major wire service editor wrote me afterwards, "I heard good things about the conference from friends around the country. Never underestimate the reach of C-SPAN." (4)

C-SPAN may not make "cloture" a household word, but its growth refutes Minow's worst fears about market failure in the area of public interest programming. …

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