35 Years Ago, Congress Went Live

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

Brian Lamb, founder of C-SPAN
National Journal
Mike Magner
Add to Briefcase
Mike Magner
March 18, 2014, 3:37 p.m.

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.

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.”

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