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NJ Daily

35 Years Ago, Congress Went Live

As C-SPAN celebrates a birthday, founder Brian Lamb is still having fun.

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C-SPAN founder Brian Lamb.(Chet Susslin)

C-SPAN turns 35 Wednesday, but to Brian Lamb it never gets old. 

Though he is no longer CEO of the public-service television network he launched on March 19, 1979, Lamb still works full-time at C-SPAN headquarters, four blocks north of the Capitol.

 

"This is too much fun," said Lamb, 72, in his office bright and early on Monday despite a late-season snowstorm that shut down the government. "Every day is interesting."

Sure, Lamb's on-air presence has diminished since he handed over the reins of the C-SPAN network to two co-CEOs, Rob Kennedy and Susan Swain, in the summer of 2012.

Since then Lamb has focused on hosting Q&A, an interview program that airs on weekends, and he spends more time working on C-SPAN's educational efforts, including "C-SPAN StudentCam," which is awarding $100,000 this year to budding producers of short documentaries. (The top film for 2014 is a seven-minute video called "Earth First, Fracking Second" made by three ninth-graders from Long Beach, Calif.)

 

Lamb also has just finished work on another collection of interviews—Sundays at Eight: 25 Years of Stories from C-SPAN's Q&A and Booknotes—that will be released in April by Public Affairs. "In today's media world, our long-form, unedited production style is a polar opposite of Twitter's 140-character universe," Lamb writes in the book's introduction.

Most of all, though, Lamb simply soaks it all in as C-SPAN's three TV channels, one radio channel, and online video archives present each day's developments in American and world history. "We have a worldwide audience now," Lamb said.

It's a long way from the first live broadcast of the House of Representatives that went out to fewer than 3 million homes 35 years ago. The broadcast opened with Speaker Tip O'Neill gaveling the session to order, a prayer from Chaplain James David Ford, and Rep. Al Gore speaking for one minute on the historic move to put Congress on live TV.

"Television will change this institution, Mister Speaker, just as it has changed the executive branch," intoned the Tennessee Democrat and future vice president. "But the good will far outweigh the bad."

 

C-SPAN spokeswoman Laura Finch noted that 35 years of televised proceedings have produced historic episodes such as the passage of landmark bills and "not-so-serious moments" such as former Rep. James Traficant, an Ohio Democrat, giving one of his audacious floor speeches and closing with his trademark line, "Beam me up, Scotty!"

"Many of our highlighted events have had profound impact on direction of the Congress and/or the nation's policy," Finch said.

Of course the legislative branch would have found its way onto TV and computer screens eventually, but it was Lamb who made it happen when it did.

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Born and raised in Lafayette, Ind., Lamb pursued a career in radio before joining the Navy and working his way up to assistant secretary for public affairs at the Pentagon. He later was a social aide to President Johnson and then, after a brief stint at a TV station in Indiana, he returned to Washington as a Capitol Hill press secretary and a media-relations aide in the White House Office of Telecommunications Policy.

Lamb later covered the burgeoning communications industry as a journalist, which is when he hatched his plan for putting government on television. A proposal authorizing the Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network to carry House proceedings was approved by Congress in December 1977 and the first broadcast came 14 months later.

Gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Senate was added in 1986, resulting in C-SPAN2, and a third channel devoted to other government proceedings and public-affairs programs was created in 2001.

Every minute of every broadcast—congressional or otherwise—is available free of charge to anyone on the planet through C-SPAN's website. Lamb calls the video archives C-SPAN's preeminent achievement in its 35 years.

Asked what ranked second among the network's accomplishments, Lamb responded: "I think just being here. People in 100 million homes can watch our network live. There is so much to learn by having this opportunity."

Surveys show that about one in 10 Americans connect with C-SPAN on a daily basis, and about 30 percent of the country is considered weekly viewers. The other 60 percent "don't care at all," Lamb said, but even 10 percent of the U.S. population is 30 million daily watchers.

"I like to think of it in terms of what it's done for the average person who might be interested in government," Lamb said. "A lot of people don't have to come to Washington any more to see their representatives."

This article appears in the March 19, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.

DON'T MISS TODAY'S TOP STORIES

Chock full of usable information on today's issues."

Michael, Executive Director

Concise coverage of everything I wish I had hours to read about."

Chuck, Graduate Student

The day's action in one quick read."

Stacy , Director of Communications

Great way to keep up with Washington"

Ray, Professor of Economics

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