Steve Burke, president of Comcast Cable Communications Inc., had just finished a brief talk about leadership to a classroom of students at Gonzaga College High School, a few blocks from Capitol Hill.
With several C-SPAN cameras rolling, Burke invited the two dozen students to ask questions. A senior at the Catholic school popped up.
"As a father and the CEO of Comcast, what are your views on the decline of moral values in society and on TV?" he asked.
'Do some editing'
Burke replied: "There's no question that television has gotten more and more coarse over time. I do worry that my kids and kids all over America are seeing things at an earlier age than they ever did before.
"That having been said, we live in a country where we have a certain amount of freedom of speech, and I think it is incumbent upon parents, educators — all sorts of people — to do some editing to make sure that their kids are seeing what they should be seeing when they should be seeing it," he added.
As part of Students & Leaders, an initiative sponsored by Comcast and C-SPAN, ambitious students at 40 Washington-area high schools have peppered Supreme Court justices, cabinet secretaries, members of Congress and other government, media and business bigwigs with similarly tough questions.
Some of the speakers made news, such as when Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, speaking at a high school in Northwest Washington, defended his frequent disagreements with black civil rights leaders.
The first 40 Students & Leaders events, which were carried on C-SPAN 3, took place over 20 days, starting in late April. Burke's June 5 talk at Gonzaga College was the 41st, and final, installment. But the program might be back soon.
After getting inquiries from cable companies nationwide, C-SPAN is toying with the idea of taking Students & Leaders on the road, said network spokeswoman Robin Scullin. If the expanded project goes forward, it would feature local lawmakers, media personalities and business leaders talking to small audiences of high-school students around the country, with the events televised on C-SPAN 3.
"It went so well here in D.C.," Scullin said. "There's a lot of programming around the country."
C-SPAN proposed the partnership with Comcast as a way to thank the company for providing roughly one-quarter of C-SPAN's $40 million annual budget, Scullin said.
Despite initial concerns about the logistical challenge of having 40 speakers at different high schools in the span of less than four weeks, Comcast executives praised C-SPAN and Students & Leaders.
"C-SPAN has just demonstrated that they can pull off not only a high-quality program but also a logistical challenge," said Jaye Gamble, Comcast's regional vice president for Virginia and the Washington metro area.
Gamble wasn't surprised that other cable companies wanted to replicate the effort in their markets, although he noted that it would be harder to assemble a similarly star-studded cast of leaders outside the Beltway. "Having that many successful leaders [in the D.C. area] facilitated or even made possible so many events in such a compressed period of time."
Participating in Students & Leaders helped fulfill Comcast's mission to provide a wealth of public-affairs programming, said Gamble.
But that wasn't the only benefit. The initiative also seemed tailored to bolster Comcast's image in the nation's capital, where impressing lawmakers and regulators seems just as important as luring potential customers.
"That's why we used our pretty thick Rolodexes to reach out to these guests," Scullin said.
Airtime for logo
Comcast's logo was plastered on buses and subways throughout the Washington area as part of an aggressive promotional campaign for Students & Leaders.
And Burke's presentation — which was scheduled to air on C-SPAN and C-SPAN 3 — provided a national forum to plug Comcast's services and bright business prospects.
Answering the question about the decline of moral values on television, Burke touted Comcast's technology that helps parents filter out unwanted content. He also shrugged off doubts about last year's purchase of AT&T Broadband, which more than doubled both the company's number of subscribers and its debt.
States News Service