C-SPAN Is 25

WSJ.com – How the Network For Nerds Became a Big Hit
For political junkies, C-SPAN is indespendible. I was in a hotel in downtown Chicago watching the House vote on impeachment for Clinton on C-SPAN. I was opposed to the impeachment but knew that I was watching history in real time, no analysis or bias. That’s what makes C-SPAN unique. It may be boring to some, but if you want to see the government work, largely unfiltered, that’s where you turn.

The nation is more polarized than ever, or so the conventional wisdom has it. Washington in particular is said to seethe with snarling, snapping partisans.

As it happens, this claim is roughly true. But everyone in politics can still agree on one thing, besides (naturally) the need to “rise above partisanship”: C-SPAN, the public-affairs channel celebrating its 25th anniversary this month, is the best sort of reality TV.

Back in 1979, Brian Lamb, the former editor of a media newsletter, was frustrated by the sound-bite coverage of government on the broadcast networks. So he began C-SPAN with a staff of four. Now the network employs 280 people. Its three 24-hour-a-day channels attract 34 million viewers a week. It has a satellite radio service along with 10 Web sites and, this month, a new book based on its signature “Booknotes” program. One out of five Americans tune into C-SPAN’s coverage of Congress at least once or twice a week, not to mention its news conferences, lectures, foreign news shows and archival tapes of Supreme Court arguments and Oval Office conversations.

All this material is produced on an annual budget of $40 million, less than the cost of airing a single TV sitcom. Every basic-cable subscriber pays a nickel a month for the network, which receives zero government funding. Appropriately, C-SPAN is above the fray. Its viewers “get a front-row seat to our democratic process, with no editorial comment,” Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin told C-SPAN. A survey by pollster Peter Hart found that Democrats tend to view CNN and network newscasts as “unbiased and balanced” while by a three-to-two margin they think Fox News is biased. Republicans have the opposite view. The only entity to win pluralities for fairness from both sides is C-SPAN. Bob Schieffer of CBS News told the Dallas Morning News that “it’s almost like a public utility.” In Washington, “turning off C-SPAN would be like turning off the water or the electricity.”

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