C-SPAN’s Mission Remains on Track

Mar 15, 2004  •  Post A Comment

In 25 years, technology has changed, but C-SPAN’s mission has not.
“Our mission is to offer our country’s people an opportunity to see major events from start to finish,” C-SPAN Chairman and CEO Brian Lamb said. “We still do the same things today.”
But video-on-demand and broadband video may give viewers more chances to see those events when they want to see them.
“Eventually, we’ll be VOD with everything,” he said. Viewers will be able to “go home and call up a hearing they want to see.”
C-SPAN is testing VOD with Comcast and is in VOD discussions with Time Warner Cable, Mr. Lamb said. At the same time, technology is making cameras cheaper, and automation means the network can send its small staff to cover more events and go places it couldn’t go before.
All that on a $40 million annual budget.
But even the $40 million budget-a nickel per subscriber, a pittance compared with what ESPN or HBO spends on programming-is huge, considering C-SPAN’s origins.
Mr. Lamb first pitched the idea of a public affairs network to the cable industry in 1977. Later that year the U.S. House of Representatives voted to allow the televising of House proceedings. In 1979, when C-SPAN launched, its budget was $480,000.
In addition to cash, cable operators, who knew the new network would endear them to public officials, contributed valuable channel capacity.
Since then, the channel has branched out to cover hearings, speeches and seminars, and has instituted call-in shows and election coverage. It also broadened its programming to cover books and history.
Along the way, this wonky channel won a slew of prestigious awards while providing a public service.
Now it’s doing exciting things with technology.
“In a nutshell, the main thing that’s ahead of us is to use the new technologies that are coming down the pipeline to improve our product, both in terms of the television product [and] also to use the new platforms that are being created to find new ways to make our product available to our audience,” said Rob Kennedy, C-SPAN executive VP and co-chief operating officer.
C-SPAN’s VOD testing with Comcast is on systems in the Washington and Philadelphia areas, and includes some of its book programming as well as a series called “Student and Leaders,” in which government, media and business powerhouses give talks in schools.
“There’s a lot on C-SPAN, and if you want to watch it at a time that’s convenient for you, VOD is a great platform to make that possible,” Mr. Kennedy said.
At this point C-SPAN’s content is updated monthly, but that’s not fast enough, Mr. Kennedy said. Right now technical impediments increase the amount of time needed to edit material into a format that can be transmitted to the servers cable operators use, and video is shipped on tapes.
“One of the things we’d like to do more of with VOD is find a way to make it more immediate,” he said. “We’d like to get to the point where we could refresh on a more frequent basis so that topical events can also be put on the VOD platform.”
Mr. Kennedy said C-SPAN has had conversations with multiple system operators about using VOD to bolster the network’s presidential campaign coverage. “For the fall, we’re seeing how we might be able to use VOD in the presidential election to allow customers to access, for example, the acceptance speeches at the convention or important policy speeches that the candidates give.”
Such material is already available on C-SPAN’s Web site, where the network’s production cycle allows posting of video within hours or, in some cases, minutes of when material is aired.
Technology is also helping C-SPAN increase the number of events it covers and raise the production quality of its coverage.
Considering that it seems like “a dot-org in a dot-com world,” in the words of Gary Ellenwood, director of field operations, C-SPAN is constantly on the prowl for cutting-edge technology.
“How can we not afford to be on the cutting edge,” asked Mr. Ellenwood, who has been with C-SPAN for 22 years. With a format that he admits is sometimes likened to watching paint dry, “one of my goals from the get-go has been to try to make what we do more visually interesting.”
One key way is to use robotics to get more cameras into congressional hearing rooms. Originally, C-SPAN operated a camera that provided a good head-and-shoulder shot of legislators, plus a second camera somewhere on the side of the room. That second camera left witnesses appearing in profile, a less flattering shot, but that’s where the legislators wanted it, Mr. Ellenwood said. With robotics, a camera could be placed where C-SPAN could get better shots of the witnesses.
“That may not sound like a big thing, but to us, when you look at how long these things can be, it’s important that the picture and the audio don’t distract from the message,” he said.
Technology has also brought smaller, better cameras, which are providing dividends on the campaign trail, where C-SPAN is a leader in using COFDM, a wireless transmission technology.
A year ago, C-SPAN covered campaign events with a single camera, which had to be locked down inside the venue where a candidate was due to speak. This year C-SPAN has a second camera, giving the network a chance to show voter reaction or follow the candidates into less formal situations.
“We’re able to start with these candidates when they arrive in their motorcades,” Mr. Ellenwood said. “We see the impromptu press conferences with print reporters. We’ll follow them into the green room and go behind the blue curtain, waiting for their introductions as they’re talking to their spouses.” C-SPAN will stay with the event afterward, with the smaller cameras offering less intrusiveness as the candidates meet with voters.
“We’re not ESPN, we’re not MTV, and obviously we’re not `Letterman’ from the standpoint of putting a wireless camera on a dog, but our ability to wander freely is going to be interesting if we do it right,” he said.
By cutting down on the number of people needed to produce an event, robotics has allowed C-SPAN to keep its staffing constant.
While technology reduces the number of people needed to produce an event, instead of cutting people, C-SPAN has increased the number of events it covers.
“I think the robustness of programming can only be enhanced by what the technology is going to offer down the road,” Mr. Kennedy said.
Mr. Kennedy said C-SPAN’s digital plant means that launching additional channels would be relatively quick and cheap. After all, a C-SPAN4 and C-SPAN5 have been gathering dust on a drawing board since the late 1990s, when operators were looking for material to fill their digital tiers.
“Personally, I don’t think it’s imminent,” he said, but if systems convert to all-digital, “It’s very inexpensive for us to put these channels up.”
But some things won’t change, Mr. Lamb said. The network will continue to eschew advertising and government money. And that may be the legacy for the next 25 years. “This private business delivered a private service and stayed with it,” he said.