How Vietnam Gave Us C-SPAN: Brian Lamb, the Network's Founder, Is Retiring after 40 Years of Putting Cameras on Congress, Hosting In-Depth Interviews, and Creating an Enduring Home for Diverse Civil Discourse

Reason, July 2019 | Go to article overview

How Vietnam Gave Us C-SPAN: Brian Lamb, the Network's Founder, Is Retiring after 40 Years of Putting Cameras on Congress, Hosting In-Depth Interviews, and Creating an Enduring Home for Diverse Civil Discourse


ON MAY 19, 2019, a major era in American media and politics quietly ended. Brian Lamb made his final official appearance on C-SPAN, the public affairs television network he launched 40 years ago. Fittingly, that last show was an in-depth interview with historian David McCullough, whose work often chronicles how previously underappreciated figures such as Harry Truman and John Adams radically transformed American history.

The 77-year-old Lamb could be one of McCullough's protagonists. He didn't just anticipate our era of transparency, in which governments, corporations, and other institutions are held accountable to an extent once unimaginable; he helped to create that era by effectively turning surveillance cameras on Congress. In 1979, C-SPAN started broadcasting live coverage of the United States House of Representatives. Long before reality TV shows such as Real World, Survivor, the Real Housewives franchise, and Sober House entered the Zeitgeist, C-SPAN gave Americans direct, unmediated access to one of the most powerful groups of people on the planet. For the first time in history, we could see our elected representatives arguing, wheeling and dealing, and literally falling asleep during debates over federal budgets, foreign policy, tax plans, and much more.

In 1986, C-SPAN started covering the Senate in a similar fashion, giving us unadulterated views of confirmation hearings of Supreme Court justices, cabinet secretaries, and other high-level appointees. Other programming--ranging from live, comprehensive coverage of the Iowa caucuses to bus tours of presidential libraries and other off-the-beaten-track locales to hourslong interviews with authors, policy makers, and politicians--soon followed.

C-SPAN famously doesn't pay attention to ratings, because Lamb has long suspected that data on audience size would subconsciously redirect attention from what he considered important topics to merely popular ones. But in any given week, cable ratings show, about 20 percent of households tune in to the network. An early adopter when it comes to technology and distribution, C-SPAN has a remarkably robust, user-friendly, and free website that allows visitors to search through video clips and transcripts of 240,000 hours of archives. Clarence Thomas' confirmation hearings are there, along with Joe Biden's withdrawal from the 1988 presidential race, Rand Paul's epic 13-hour anti-surveillance filibuster from 2013, and dozens of appearances by Reason staff over the years.

If the typical cable news impresario is brash, arrogant, overbearing, and incapable of thinking in chunks of time longer than a few minutes, Lamb is the opposite. He speaks quietly and self-effacingly, and he prefers expansive, substantive programming to the partisan rat-a-tat-tat that defines contemporary cable news.

Born in 1941, Lamb joined the Navy in the early 1960s and was assigned to do media relations for the Pentagon during the Vietnam War. That experience, and a frustration with the superficial nature of broadcast coverage of important political matters, ultimately gave birth to the idea for C-SPAN.

Lamb also worked at the Office of Telecommunications Policy, a federal agency that was instrumental in deregulating the satellite industry in the 1970s. Under the "Open Skies" policy, the number of domestic communications satellites increased dramatically and quickly, thus making it possible for cable systems to provide original programming on a cheap, coast-to-coast basis by pulling signals from those satellites. The rise of cable TV in the 1970s, Lamb explains, provided a way to work around ABC, CBS, and NBC. "The most important thing to me was reducing the power of the three networks so that we had more opportunities to see more sides of more issues," he says. In the late 1970s, he pitched a group of cable executives on a network that would provide long-form coverage of politics and culture. American media would never be the same. …

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