If founder Brian Lamb had to do it over again, C-SPAN wouldn’t be called C-SPAN.
“It’s not the greatest name around,” says Lamb, 70, who steps down Sunday as CEO. “Three people know what it stands for. I don’t even know what it stands for. One of our board members asked me. We rarely ever spell it out.”
Drum roll, please.
Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network launched on March 19, 1979, with four employees (including Lamb) and a reach of 3.5 million homes. It now includes three networks, a staff of 280 and a universe of 100 million homes.
Most Americans assume the ‘C’ in C-SPAN stands for Congress, since covering Congress’ proceedings – live, unfiltered, gavel-to-gavel – is its raison d’etre. But in 1979, with cable in its infancy, Lamb felt it more important to brand C-SPAN as a non-broadcast enterprise.
“Otherwise, people wouldn’t have known what it was,” says Lamb, newly-named executive chairman. “At that point, we were only the sixth cable network.”
These days, C-SPAN suffers no such identity crisis, though Lamb does, often being mistaken for Sen. John McCain, Ed Harris or John Glenn. According to C-SPAN’s most recent survey, 75 percent of respondents recognize the non-profit network’s name, Lamb says. Since C-SPAN does not have ratings, however, he has no hard numbers on viewership.
ABC’s Cokie Roberts, who was, in her own words, “very involved in the birth” of C-SPAN, sees the network’s identity issue differently.
“I don’t think people are aware of the brand, but they’re very aware of the product,” Roberts, 68, says. As an NPR reporter in the late ‘70s, she and her colleagues in Congress’ Radio-TV gallery joined Lamb in lobbying the House of Representatives to allow TV cameras on the floor.
Despite C-SPAN’s noble mission, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and ‘Saturday Night Live,’ among others, parody the network’s frequently-static content as a perfect sleep aid.
In real life, C-SPAN fan Ed Rendell, former Democratic National Committee Chairman, swears by the network for his nightly zzzz’s.
“I have a hyperactive mind, so I watch TV in my living room and fall asleep for about 90
minutes before I go upstairs and go to bed,” says Rendell, 68, formerly governor of Pennsylvania and mayor of Philadelphia.
“I want to watch something that’s interesting, but not so interesting that I won’t fall asleep after 10 or 12 minutes. C-SPAN is my favorite.”
While snoozing in his recliner last week, Rendell had the bizarre experience of waking up to the sound of his own voice — a C-SPAN repeat of a recent Washington forum at which he was a speaker.
For his part, Lamb admits that C-SPAN “looks a little weird” to outsiders. “It doesn’t entertain like [traditional] TV, unless you’re very interested in this stuff. It’s a service. We’ve got one foot in, one foot out. We don’t have numbers. We don’t have to sell to advertisers to get eyeballs. We don’t have stars. Almost everything other networks have, we don’t have.”
Despite its no-frills exterior, C-SPAN has had a “huge” impact on both the performance and perception of the legislative branch, says ABC’s Roberts.
Because of C-SPAN, members of Congress “understand the value of electronic media. They became very keen to elect leaders who were good on TV. You just couldn’t be an inside player anymore. You had to be somebody who could play outside.”
Among the first to capitalize on that power was a freshman Congressman from Georgia, Newt Gingrich. At the end of daily sessions, he would frequently organize ‘special orders,’ which allowed him to give speeches. Viewers didn’t know the chamber was virtually empty – the cameras, owned and controlled by Congress, focused only on speakers. They still do.
For Capitol Hill reporters, C-SPAN continues to be an invaluable resource as well, Roberts says, because its raw footage offers a “100 percent accurate recording of what was happening. From a journalist’s vantage point, it’s heaven.”
Lamb’s dream of cameras in the U.S. Supreme Court has yet to be realized, but he’s not discouraged. “One step at a time,” he says. “I’ve been asking for 25 years. … It will take a change of attitude about television. A lot of them [Supreme Court Justices] don’t watch TV or don’t trust TV.”
Adds Roberts: “Judge Judy is more recognized than Justice Roberts. The American people should have the opportunity to see the court in action.”
Lamb will see plenty of action at C-SPAN, where he’ll continue his Sunday interview show, ‘Q & A.’ “I’ll be here most days,” he says. “I just don’t want to get in the way.” He promised the board he’d stick around for three years, he says.
And after that? “I hope I’m alive,” he says, going out like a Lamb.