When C-SPAN launched on March 19, 1979, it was a minor media creation with four employees, including founder Brian Lamb. Today, the nonprofit public-affairs network is a Washington, D.C., institution and so much a part of the political fabric that it (and progeny C-SPAN 2 and C-SPAN 3) can almost be viewed as a fourth branch of the federal government. In an interview with Multichannel News Washington News Editor Ted Hearn, Lamb discussed his time with the network and what the future might hold.
MCN: Media ownership is a hot topic. Who actually owns C-SPAN?
Brian Lamb: C-SPAN is a 501(c)(3) corporation that in effect is not owned by anybody, but is controlled by a board of directors made up of some 21 people. And the only thing they can really do with it is vote to disband it. They could sell the assets.
But no matter what we would do with any sale of anything we have, it would have to go to charity, disbursed to charity. So nobody can physically take money out of C-SPAN for their own, you know, corporate good.
MCN: Did you ever own C-SPAN?
Lamb: Never. No.
MCN: If some media baron came into your office and said, “I want to buy C-SPAN,” what would happen?
Lamb: First of all, it's happened. People have asked to be able to buy it, and they want it for the obvious reason, the channel capacity. The answer directly to your question is, No way. C-SPAN belongs to the people. The stewardship, the guidance of it, comes from the cable television industry. And it will stay that way.
MCN: Can you say who has come in to make an offer to buy the network?
Lamb: Not really. I don't want to get into that. It was years ago. It wasn''t recently. The interest really came because of politics and a political buy, instead of a commercial buy.
MCN: So big-media foes Andy Schwartzman and Jeff Chester don't have to worry about picking up the Wall Street Journal one morning and seeing that Viacom or Disney or News Corp. has reached an agreement to acquire C-SPAN?
Lamb: It's a good question because I don't want to say never. I'm not going to be here forever, and I don't know what a future group would want to do. But no matter what anybody would pay for it, it would all have to go to charity. So the short answer is, I doubt it very much.
The long answer is, anything in this world can happen. You go back in history, to names like Look magazine, Life magazine, UPI, all of those organizations were at one time very significant in the United States and they're not here anymore. So I think for anybody to say this is forever would be a mistake.
MCN: What happens to C-SPAN if you were to leave and to signature shows associated with you, such as Booknotes?
Lamb: Booknotes was never intended to be here forever. But Book TV, which has 48 hours on C-SPAN II on a weekend, has been, in our world, very successful. [We] haven't really discussed what we'll do with Booknotes in the future. I suspect that the program, when I get finished with it, will probably die and somebody else will pick up an idea and go for it. But there's really not been any discussion of what to do with that, and I haven't got any direct plans to stop it.
MCN: Is it eerie when a news event happens — say, the death of journalist Michael Kelly in Iraq — and you can go into the Booknotes vault and find the program you did with him?
Lamb: It's not an eerie experience, but it's really a significant experience because we find, time and time again, the families will call us after that and say, “Thank you, because the public could see what my son was like in context.” It happens so often, that that may be a little bit eerie, more than actually being able to put it on after their deaths.
MCN: C-SPAN is celebrating its 25th anniversary this month. Do people realize that C-SPAN would not exist without the cable industry, or did you have a broadcast strategy back then as a Plan B?
Lamb: We've struggled for 25 years to tell people the C-SPAN story, and what I mean by that is that it is a public service created by a private business, and it's the cable television business. It's really hard to get that message through because, frankly, if you ask the public who owns CNN, or who owns MTV, or who owns ESPN, probably 3% of the American people could tell you.
And so it shouldn't be expected any differently with us. But we tell the audience, probably 15 times a day, that this place was created by the cable television industry, and very few people hear it.
MCN: How many people worked for C-SPAN opening day?
MCN: Including yourself?
MCN: How many people work here today, in how many departments?
Lamb: There are 255 people full-time that work for us now. I'm not really sure of the number of the departments, but it's going to be at least 10.
MCN: Did you think C-SPAN was an experiment that would not last too long? When did you know the network had made it?
Lamb: I always called it an experiment in the beginning, because I thought it was wise not to assume that we would be here 25 years later. I knew it was a success when we were allowed to buy a full-time satellite channel and sign a contract that would last more than a month.
I knew emotionally that it was a success in November of 1979, the first time we ever heard directly from the audience — after we ran a five-hour Thanksgiving Day taped session at the Republican National Committee, of all things — when we asked the audience at the end of it if they had any comments to call us, and the phones rang off the hook.
MCN: What do you think C-SPAN has done to American politics?
Lamb: I very carefully over the years have not answered that question, because I am not really sure. I like to say that it's all in the eye of the beholder — that if you're somebody who is a journalist and lives in Boise, and is interested in what's going on in Washington, you've got a wealth of opportunity. If you're a member of Congress and have a staff that's able to tune in in Honolulu, it's a connection.
If you're an average citizen who just is interested and is curious, and lives in El Paso, it's a great day for you. I can go on with this. If you're the President of the United States and you send your cabinet to Capitol Hill to testify and never see what they look like when they testify and only see clips on the evening news, you now can watch their performance and get some idea of what's really going on up there. That's something that could never happen before.
MCN: Does Brian Lamb intend to be here another 25 years?
Lamb: I do not.
MCN: What's on the horizon?
Lamb: I don't know. I've never felt better. I'm 62 years old, I still have a lot of energy and I'm still interested. But this network has been set up in a way that if I walk out tomorrow it will continue under the very strong leadership of Susan Swain and Rob Kennedy, people who have been here for the last 20 years who are much younger than I am.
Most people in the country have no idea who I am, and they don't care. They tune in to see the public system at work, and that's what's important.