WASHINGTON — Founding CEO Brian Lamb is stepping down from day-to-day operations at
C-SPAN, the public-affairs network he helped build into a national institution. He claims
to have outlasted most of cable’s original pioneers, and he never got the urge to sell out.
He will remain executive chairman of the board and continue his weekly interview show,
Q&A, but the channel is “somebody else’s baby” now, he says — specifically, the charge of
new co-CEOs Rob Kennedy and Susan Swain (see Rules). Lamb spoke with Multichannel News
Washington bureau chief John Eggerton last week about how that “baby” was born and how it has been
cared for by the cable industry.
MCN: Why did you start C-SPAN?
Brian Lamb: I got involved in this because I felt very strongly
coming out of the Midwest that we weren’t getting enough
information. I had been in the Navy and I came to Washington
and I was at the Pentagon for two years, watching the
Vietnam War information battle and getting to know how
the networks operated, and it was just
an instinct. I kept saying to myself, “it’s
got to be better than this, 30 minutes
a night on these three networks,” and
they all did basically the same thing and
thought the same way.
I went to Capitol Hill and worked a
couple years and ended up down in the
Office of Telecommunications Policy
and these were geniuses and they really
understood policy and they wanted
to change it, not because they wanted
to take anything away but they wanted
to add. That was what taught me how
[C-SPAN] would eventually evolve.
I would go back to Indiana and tell my
friends what I had seen, and they couldn’t
see it because they weren’t living here and
they were interested in politics.
MCN: Bob Johnson saw a need and became a billionaire
with BET. Michael Bloomberg saw a news need and made
a billion, too. Did you come up with this great idea and
essentially donate it to the country?
BL: It has been a fascinating thing learning about how
money works in business, but the money thing was never
on my radar. Some of the business people will tell you, “he
did not know the first thing about money.” They taught
me, and I mean [C-SPAN founding chairman and UAColumbia
Cable head] Bob Rosencrans, all the basics. I
made the presentation to 40 cable operators, and he was
the only guy in the room who came up and said I like your
idea and I would like to support it. After things started
to take off and he gave me a $25,000 check, I said, “Now
what?” He said, “You have to write a business plan.”
Making money was just never a mission of mine. I’m
comfortably paid, but it is just not the reason I got into this.
MCN: Why did you set up this sort of bicameral
succession with Rob Kennedy and Susan Swain as copresidents
and now co-CEOs
BL: It really evolved. There was a time when we had a fiveperson
executive management committee and everybody
that worked here started out right out of college. They all
began to show their talents over time. Rob has an extraordinary
talent when it comes to managing money. In the
25 years he has been here, we have never had a bad report
from our auditors about anything. Susan was hired in 1982
for $15,000 a year as a producer.
She just constantly demonstrated
leadership ability and understanding
of our mission.
They made great presentations to
the board. There was no magic to it,
except they have the talent to work
MCN: What about C-SPAN makes
BL: I actually am most proud of the
fact that this transition worked and
that I am able to walk away and
still have an organization that is on
mission 35 years later. We are doing
the same thing we set out to do.
If this industry hadn’t stuck by us
over the years, we wouldn’t be here.
MCN: Talking about issues you are passionate about,
C-SPAN continues to push for
cameras in Supreme Court
oral arguments. Why?
BL: There are some simple
reasons. They have absolutely
nothing to lose by doing it and they have everything to gain
by letting the public see how that process works. Unlike any
other institution, they are in control. They don’t vote their
emotions. The chief justice can control any advocate who
stands up in front of the court if they begin to grandstand.
It is a marvelous institution.
MCN: Do you support the current legislation that would
mandate coverage, with the judges allowed to decide on
a case-by-case basis?
BL: We have stayed out of supporting a bill. Yes, it would be
nice if the Congress passed a bill, but my guess it would be
unconstitutional based on the fact that you have three equal
branches of government and the court very much sets its
own rules. I think the court has to do it on their own and realize
that the education value is significant. And until they do,
they are going to keep saying no. And they will stand firm,
because there are several members of the court who are adamantly
opposed to television and, frankly, they don’t know
much about television. It is always an awkward discussion.
They were very good to us, let us in to show the whole
court inside and out, talk to all living justices — first time
that ever happened in history — did a documentary on the
place. That part of it I can’t complain [about]. They just don’t
want to do this [televise oral arguments].
MCN: Are you concerned about the divisive tone of
political discourse, or does that just make for a more
BL: I’m not one that is concerned. I don’t like some of the
things that people are saying in this society about one
another, but it’s the definition of freedom. My reaction to
it is, if you don’t like it, don’t watch it.
Politics is a very serious business and most people don’t
realize there is a lot at stake. They don’t think about it in
that way. They think their side should win all the time. The
reason why we are divided as a country is because we are
divided as a country.
MCN: What will you be doing at C-SPAN?
BL: We’re doing research now on the history of this place
and trying to figure out whether there is either a book or
website to set up that leaves a little bit of a legacy about
things happened. I will do this one-hour interview show
every week and I do put a tremendous amount of research
in it, so that at least I know something about what
the guest is talking about so I can get the best interview.
MCN: Is there anything we did not cover that you would
like to talk about?
BL: The only thing that is very important to me is that the
people in the industry who started this place and stuck with
it over the years, and there
are some of them still on the
board, Amos Hostetter, John
Evans, Bob Miron and a lot
of the newcomers. If the collective
group had not supported this from the beginning
and continued to support it through 35 years, we wouldn’t
be here. This whole world is pegged toward the bottom line,
and this place has never made a dime for anybody. The
industry has spent a billion dollars in these 35 years for a
product that is nothing but public service.
Key events in the
1979 C-SPAN begins cablecasting
the U.S. House of
Representatives live to
3.5 million households.
1980: C-SPAN adds live
viewer call-ins to program
schedule, providing viewers
with direct access to public
1981: C-SPAN adds
gavel-to-gavel coverage of
congressional hearings to
1984: C-SPAN cablecasts
live, uninterrupted coverage
of the Democratic and
Conventions for the
1986: Senate votes in favor
of permanent televised coverage
of its proceedings.
1987: C-SPAN2 begins 24-
1989: C-SPAN launches
Booknotes. its signature
runs for 16 years, until 2004.
1995: The three-hour Washington
Journal (7 to 10 a.m.
ET) replaces the network’s
earlier call-in incarnations as
the network’s flagship viewer
1997: C-SPAN Radio 90, a
24-hour public affairs radio
station serving the Washington-
Baltimore market, goes on
2003: C-SPAN3 is launched
as a national digital cable
network, offering live coverage
of national events on weekdays
and long-form history
programming overnights and
2006: C-SPAN debuts The
Communicators, a weekly
half-hour interview with
people who shape telecommunications
2010: All three C-SPAN channels
deliver HD simultaneously
for the first time.
2012: C-SPAN Board announces
transition, effective April 1;
Rob Kennedy and Susan
Swain are named Co-CEOs.