A watch on Washington C-SPAN: The cable channel provides surveillance of government and coverage of events the networks skip.

November 03, 1996|By Bill Thomas | Bill Thomas,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WASHINGTON -- Question: If a speech is made in Washington and C-SPAN isn't there to cover it, does it make a noise?

This time of year it's hard to say. With Election Day drawing near, the whole city is talking politics, and C-SPAN seems determined to broadcast every last syllable.

"Our basic aim is to provide comprehensive and unbiased coverage of our government in action," says Steve Scully, C-SPAN's political editor. "We take that task pretty seriously."

Although action is often the last thing you see on the commercial-free cable channel, it's hard to imagine how anything on television could be more comprehensive. Watching the government work on C-SPAN is a little like watching the security monitors in a convenience store. Yet constant surveillance, according to Scully, is what the network's committed fans have come to expect.

Take a debate of third-party vice presidential candidates held last month at American University in Washington. Without C-SPAN, which stands for Cable Satellite Public Affairs Network, the only people to see the event would have been the few dozen curious onlookers who actually showed up. By airing it, C-SPAN made it available to 60 million households.

Since C-SPAN doesn't buy Nielsen ratings, the exact number of viewers remains a mystery. Just the same, they're out there. And a third-party debate is their "must-see-TV."

The debaters -- Herbert Titus of the U.S. Taxpayers Party, Jo Jorgensen of the Libertarian Party and Mike Tompkins of the Natural Law Party -- may not have much name recognition. However, that doesn't matter to C-SPAN, the only channel on television where a fall lineup like this could get two hours on prime time.

That's because C-SPAN officials see public-affairs television as an endless dialogue in which everyone, no matter how obscure, misinformed or out-and-out-wacko, is entitled to his or her air time.

True, the network has been blamed for everything from creating a policy-wonk underground to extending the Capital Beltway coast to coast. But C-SPAN junkies, predominantly middle-aged, middle class and suspicious of big government, say that's what it takes to keep an eye on Washington.

Last Tuesday was a typical programming day on C-SPAN. It began with "Washington Journal," where reporters reviewed the morning's top newspaper stories (with close-ups of major editorial pages). Then came a conference of Hispanic educators, a speech at the National Press Club by former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, a debate from Minnesota between Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone and his challenger, former GOP Sen. Rudy Boschwitz, another debate from upstate New York, and another one from Idaho.

Main concerns

To fill the gaps in between, deadpan C-SPAN moderators took calls from viewers, whose main concerns can be reduced to two endlessly repeated questions: (A) Why don't politicians tell the truth? and (B) Why does the media distort reality?

The seven-person C-SPAN crew at American University arrives to set up their cameras and equipment three hours before show time. Most of the veterans admit they are sick of politics and politicians.

"This is my third presidential campaign," says one guy.

"After awhile you just stop paying attention."

Not everybody, though, is jaded by the process.

"Want to hear some noise in the hall?" asks rookie audio man Jake Scheur, busy testing C-SPAN's signature sound effect.

There it is: the muffled chatter of incoming spectators, the clicking of heels on the floor.

"Pure C-SPAN," smiles Scheur. "Nice."

More from less

No other network large or small makes more out of less than C-SPAN does. Anybody can broadcast a political gathering. Only C-SPAN reveals what happens before it starts: the audience filing in and taking their seats, the participants nervously sizing each other up.

That's what it showed before this year's second presidential debate, and the result was dramatic coverage of Bill Clinton and Bob Dole avoiding eye contact for five tension-filled minutes. While viewers who watched the big networks heard news anchors telling them what to expect, anyone tuned in to C-SPAN got a rare glimpse of predebate psychodrama, without comment or computerized graphics.

Founder and CEO Brian Lamb started the cable channel in 1979. A spokesman for the Office of Telecommunications during the Nixon administration, and later bureau chief for a cable trade magazine, he had the idea to report what happens in Washington by showing television viewers everything the network news programs routinely leave out.

The concept became reality when late Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill endorsed Lamb's proposal for live gavel-to-gavel coverage of the House of Representatives.

C-SPAN was created by the cable industry as a nonprofit, private business. It gets its support from a monthly fee paid by cable affiliates across the country.

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