C-SPAN offers unvarnished access to D.C.’s power plays.
For political junkies, election cycles are always exciting, but the nation’s most recent was like none other.
Citizens of all stripes stayed glued to some amazing events, including an all-night Senate filibuster, a sit-in at the House floor and one of the largest peaceful protests in history — and, as usual, C-SPAN was documenting it all.
“Our goal is to let people outside Washington know how this place works and what’s happening, and let them watch and decide for themselves — with no interruptions, no analysis. It’s a window into how Washington works,” says Greta Brawner, managing producer and host.
Take the January 21 Women’s March on Washington, for example.
“All the other networks were covering that story, but they talked about it. We just showed it,” says Terry Murphy, vice-president of programming. “That’s the beauty of C-SPAN. If you looked on social media, we got a ton of comments because we let people feel like they were there. We didn’t get in the way.”
That fly-on-the-wall aspect — be it on C-SPAN, C-SPAN2 or 3, C-SPAN Radio, or c-span.org — has been an integral part of the not-for-profit’s DNA all along.
“Many journalists, I think, envy the fact that we operate in a no-ratings environment,” says Susan Swain, C-SPAN’s co-president and co-CEO (with Rob Kennedy). “Our mission is to be relevant, but also to be the network of record for what’s happening in this town.”
She’s not exaggerating. In 1987, C-SPAN began archiving every minute of programming aired across its networks, resulting in a massive repository of political history accessible to anyone, free of charge.
“Comedians on late-night talk shows use clips of ours, which introduced us to the millennial audience,” says Swain, who’s been with C-SPAN for 35 years. “When I started, we were a single channel, part-time. Now our goal — even though we’re small and not-for-profit — is to be every place people are consuming information about politics and Congress.”
A C-SPAN Radio app, podcasts and strong social media presence support the networks and website.
Another feature distinguishing C-SPAN from other news networks: separate call-in lines for Democrats, Republicans and Independents during the morning show Washington Journal and following debates and other events.
“It’s the only national venue where policymakers, lawmakers and journalists have a direct line to the American people,” says managing editor Ben O’Connell, who oversees the assignment desk. “There’s nowhere else you can get anything even remotely like it.”
Some calls are memorable, either because they’re emotional — like the man who phoned in the day after 9/11, recounting his experience at Ground Zero as the towers fell — or humorous, like the one from a woman whose sons were arguing. “She called in to berate them and tell them to knock it off before Thanksgiving dinner,” O’Connell says. “You couldn’t script it.”
That C-SPAN produces so much original content — in addition to its on-going coverage of D.C. events — is astounding, considering its annual operating budget is just $70 million (all but 1 percent comes from affiliate subscription fees). The network’s 270 employees accomplish so much on a tight budget thanks to teamwork and training, execs say.
“We want everyone to feel empowered to make decisions because they understand what we’re all here for,” Swain says.
That empowerment led to the spur-of-the-moment decision to live-stream via Periscope after audio and video from the House floor were cut during last summer’s sit-in.
“Two of our producers who were monitoring social media noticed a House member was using Periscope and asked their editor, ‘Can we pick this up?’” Swain recalls. The decision to air the feed was made knowing it would mean another all-nighter.
“We went back and forth between each member’s stream, depending on whose signal was strongest,” Murphy adds.
Swain believes C-SPAN has withstood commercial pressures and industry changes due to the system established by its founders in 1979.
“We’re non-commercial, we don’t solicit money and have never taken government money. That’s been key to C-SPAN being this island, amid a vastly changing media, that can do its job and show people the whole story.”
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 4, 2017