The University Record, April 8, 1998

C-SPAN chief says network has 'extended the gallery'

By Travis Paddock
News and Information Services

Noting that his was to be the keynote lecture in a conference about the future of media and technology, Brian Lamb admitted "I keep asking myself, 'What is the future of technology?' And I don't have the answer to that . . . I'm better at the people business."

Lamb, who is founder and chief executive officer of C-SPAN (Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network), referred multiple times to John D. Evans, his long-time friend, U-M alumnus, and founder of the John D. Evans Fund for Media and Technology, which funded the March 27-28 "Media and Technology Conference."

Lamb first met Evans in the U.S. Navy in World War II, but lost track of him after the war. Thirty years later, while writing a story for a media newsletter about the one of the country's first cable companies, he ran into Evans, working there as a consultant. Lamb told Evans of his desire to start a cable channel that provided gavel-to-gavel coverage of Congress. Evans was integral in starting C-SPAN, helping Lamb get permits and cutting through Washington bureaucracy. He has served on C-SPAN's board of directors since it's inception.

"The interesting thing about the C-SPAN project," Lamb said, "is that it is a private industry public service. The government didn't ask to have it done, they didn't mandate it to be done, the cable industry doesn't have to carry it."

C-SPAN has never paid for advertising, he said. Instead, a consortium of executives from the cable television industry, real people, decided to support something that doesn't directly benefit them fiscally, to support the nonprofit organization with a $27 million dollar annual budget.

"Seventy-one million homes in this country can watch it and it doesn't make a dime for anyone, there are no commercials, no Nielsen ratings and no stars."

Unlike other networks, C-SPAN does not promote its interviewers as TV personalities. "I've never said my name on air in the 20 years I've been on. We asked a question in our polls a few years ago to see if anybody knew who the interviewers are. Of the seven of us who are regularly on the air," Lamb said, "about 2.5 percent of people in the United States knew anybody by name. That's been our goal all along--to have that kind of feeling for people, that they came in, told their story and we weren't there to intimidate them or be stars."

Despite his desire not to discuss technology, a question from the audience prompted Lamb to describe C-SPAN's Internet resources and plans for future technological innovations.

C-SPAN's Web site carries a live simulcast of C-SPAN, C-SPAN 2 and C-SPAN Extra via RealAudio. There is an extensive online archive of major congressional hearings and debates, a live simulcast of C-SPAN Radio and an archive of parliamentary debates from other countries.

Lamb touched on possible ideas for new programming, once 500-channel television becomes a reality. One channel may be dedicated to business news and labor hearings, Federal Reserve Board meetings or Department of Labor sessions. Unable to get into the Supreme Court, Lamb would like to see a channel that covers appellate courts. Another option is to broadcast sessions of parliaments around the world.

Lamb was hesitant to speculate on the effect 20 years of C-SPAN has had on people. He doesn't like to answer the question of how much it has done to increase public participation in politics.

"I could say that it is the most important thing to happen to American politics this century, but I would prefer to say that, at the very least, it has extended the gallery."

"Members now go on the floor and in their heads, say, 'There are people out there watching me.'"