Celebrating a quarter-century of political reality TV

C-SPAN delivers thoroughness and balance in its saturation coverage

Television

March 21, 2004|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

Little is more soothing than the alliterative murmur of C-SPAN during a vote on the floor of the U.S. Senate. It goes something like this:

"Senator Akaka? Senator Akaka - Ayyyyyyye."

"Senator Alexander? Senator Alexander - Ayyyyyye."

"Senator Allard? ... "

Sleeping pills should be so potent.

But that's part of C-SPAN's appeal. Without succumbing to flash, without creating a splash, the public affairs cable channel provides unencumbered access to the workings of the federal government - in hearings, during votes, and through respectful questioning of actual lawmakers who also face the uncensored queries of callers.

In an era of shock-jocks and ideological ranting, fairness is prized. Callers are sorted by partisan leanings to ensure balanced treatment of both major parties as well as independents. John Splaine, a University of Maryland education professor, serves as a consultant to make sure no candidate or ideology is favored.

And the concept has worked.

Encyclopedic approach

This month marks the 25th anniversary of C-SPAN's uncontroversial offerings. Founder Brian Lamb sought to create an outlet with an encyclopedic approach to covering government as a balance to the snippets that could be found on the major broadcast networks' half-hour newscasts. Since its birth in 1979, C-SPAN has expanded its programs to include press conferences, academic lectures, extensive discussions with authors, broadcasts of foreign parliaments and the replaying of archival tapes, such as those made by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

The channel's tempered approach seems to have earned the loyalty of watchers and non-watchers alike. Only a small percentage - one recent study suggests about 2 percent - of cable viewers say they watch C-SPAN daily. But 64 percent of Americans who never - NEVER - watch C-SPAN said the channel is useful to the country, according to the Pew Research Center. It parallels how most environmentalists feel about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: They may never visit, but they desperately want to know it's there.

"No one ever said commercial radio or television was real. It does provide entertainment. You better be able to sell that audience to advertisers," says Lamb, the C-SPAN CEO. "We have been fortunate not to have to play that game."

No sweeps, no stunts

Indeed, Lamb's empire - now expanded to three C-SPAN channels and a radio station - runs on a $40 million annual budget essentially underwritten by the commercial cable industry. No ratings. ("They don't know if we have 350,000 viewers, or two, or one million," Lamb says.) No sweeps months. No stunts.

Oh, you'll see the occasional uncomfortable moment as a partisan caller tries to stump a politician. That may be why, according to Lamb, about a third of the U.S. Senate has never appeared on a C-SPAN call-in show. "Once they're elected, control of their environment becomes important," Lamb says. "There's a spontaneity about the call-in shows that politicians don't like."

"You do have a much more honest discussion from our callers than anywhere else in the media," Lamb says.

The callers or the guests can prove strident. But Lamb and his colleagues promise never to be. "My aim has been to capture debate as it's happening without inciting it," he says.

C-SPAN Facts

Created in 1979, C-SPAN and its sister stations have:

featured 24,246 hours of action from the floor of the House of Representatives.

averaged about 18,500 calls a year.

received zero percent of their budget from the federal government.

no idea what their ratings are at any given time.

provided 12,480 hours of nonfiction book coverage.

broadcast no commercials, other than political ads under discussion.

Source: C-SPAN

Who watches

According to a recent poll, one in five cable television viewers say they watch C-SPAN once or twice a week. Here's who they are:

Age:

39 percent are 18-49 years old.

34 percent are 50-64.

23 percent are 65 or older.

Education:

26 percent are high school graduates.

20 percent have postgraduate or professional education.

Income:

15 percent have household incomes under $30,000.

22 percent report household incomes over $75,000.

Geography:

21 percent Northeast

27 percent Midwest

30 percent South

21 percent West

Gender:

52 percent male

48 percent female

Source:C-SPAN, Peter D. Hart Research Associates

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