Brian Lamb: C-SPAN's `Social Entrepreneur Just Wants Space for Smorgasbord

By Kaplan, Peter | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), April 7, 1997 | Go to article overview

Brian Lamb: C-SPAN's `Social Entrepreneur Just Wants Space for Smorgasbord


Kaplan, Peter, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


There's no better way to write about Brian Lamb than a good old session of Q&A. The founder of C-SPAN likes things unfiltered, uncensored and no-frills.

That's the formula Mr. Lamb and C-SPAN have pioneered for 18 years. The network's unfettered coverage of long speeches and hearings has made C-SPAN the butt of endless jokes over the years, but it has attracted a hard-core following among news hounds and political junkies.

About 2 million people a week watch C-SPAN or its companion channel, C-SPAN 2. If it were ever sold, Mr. Lamb estimates the operation would be worth $1 billion.

But Mr. Lamb is in the somewhat enviable position of heading an institution that does not have to make money. The nonprofit company's $30 million annual budget is bankrolled by the U.S. cable industry.

During the last year, however, Mr. Lamb has run into some major headaches. Because of increasing competition for space on cable boxes, hundreds of systems have bumped or scaled back C-SPAN programming.

Last week the Supreme Court dealt a blow to C-SPAN and other cable interests when it ruled that cable operators have to carry local broadcast stations, regardless of how popular they are. Had it gone the other way, Mr. Lamb thought, the decision could have freed up channel space around the country - space that could have been used for more C-SPAN programming.

Mr. Lamb remains an optimist, however. Sooner or later technology will make room for more channels. When it does, C-SPAN will still be there.

Question: Do you consider what you're running here to be a business?

Answer: I feel very strongly that this is a business. It just doesn't have stockholders. It doesn't have a profit. Someone once called me a social entrepreneur, and I never thought about it before. But when I heard it, I said, "That's exactly what I am in this particular position." I feel very entrepreneurial, and I feel that we're competing very strongly for space out there on cable systems. . . . This is a private business - there's no government money involved, no taxpayer money.

Q: Who's your competition?

A: Anybody that has a cable television network that wants channel space on a cable system.

Q: And the customers?

A: Our customers are the cable television system operators, the people that own the cable systems. Our viewers are very important to us, but they don't buy it directly. They have to buy cable or buy their satellite service in order to get the network.

Q: How do you see your role on the cable dial?

A: The thing to keep in mind is that when cable television came along, in the modern cable systems back in the late '70s - and I say modern because when the domestic satellite was available for transmission, that changed everything. That changed the dynamics of communication, it changed the economics of our business. And under those circumstances, what the cable industry was looking for in the way of new programming services didn't have to be the same model that we had gotten from over-the-air television. So we're kind of like a smorgasbord, where you go in and you find lots of choice and some of it sells and a lot of others on that smorgasbord table - not everybody likes it. But if it wasn't all there, then you wouldn't attract the customers. And we just have an economic model at C-SPAN that's different than all the rest.

Q: What's different about the way C-SPAN shoots a hearing, as opposed to the networks?

A: We don't have the drama requirement. The best way to describe it is to look at the difference in the way we covered the Clarence Thomas hearings before Anita Hill got into it. …

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