C-SPAN marks its 25th anniversary on the air today.
Back in 1979, the no-frills public-affairs network signed on with four employees, one telephone, a $25,000 annual budget and the tenacious vision of founder Brian Lamb, who longed to bring a daily but palatable dose of democracy to the nation.
Mr. Lamb is lying low this week, however. He is not taking calls, nor will he be on his customary perch today as host of “Morning Journal,” the daily show that is the fix of choice among political junkies seven days a week.
“That’s pure Brian,” says someone who knows him well. “C-SPAN is his baby. Admirers and the press all over the world are clamoring for him, but he is too modest to step in the spotlight.”
Unlike other broadcast brass, Mr. Lamb has never even uttered his name on camera, never flogged the Brian Lamb “brand,” never had his face on a collectible coffee cup. There are no exploding graphics, cloying ads or celebrities on his network.
Such is the bedrock charm of C-SPAN.
“Our mission is not to make money,” says host Susan Swain, who also is chief operating officer and a 22-year veteran of the network. “Our mission is to provide a public service, to televise the national debate as much possible and bring people into it. Technology changes, but everyone who works here understands that mission. We know why we come to work.”
Her boss is a Renaissance man.
Mr. Lamb, 62, is an Indiana native who has been a drummer, radio announcer, dance-show host, U.S. Navy veteran, Republican senator’s aide, Pentagon spokesman, White House telecommunications wonk, newsletter publisher and cable magazine editor.
He rejects a high profile, preferring a role as facilitator. Mr. Lamb teased out the touchy collaboration between the cable TV industry and lawmakers, who voted in 1977 to permit broadcast coverage of their rarified world by a 342-44 margin.
Essentially, the operators agreed to fund the network and the lawmakers agreed to be on camera — for better or worse.
On March 19, 1979, the Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network — aka C-SPAN — offered its first broadcast: Rep. Al Gore, Tennessee Democrat, earnestly addressing the floor of the House.
The idea of unfettered, gavel-to-gavel coverage resonated with America.
C-SPAN’s initial audience of 3.5 million households has ballooned into 88 million — on par with MTV. Though still modestly staffed, C-Span now has three networks, 10 Web sites, a radio network and a pair of old-fashioned school buses that doggedly roll about the country, spreading the C-SPAN word to local communities in all 50 states.
The network — founded a year before CNN — laid one of the cornerstones of the great, voluble empire of public debate: the live viewer call-in. For more than 24 years, C-SPAN has put such luminaries as former Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton on the phone with flabbergasted callers; C-SPAN now fields about 25,000 calls a year.
With live, unscripted sound and action, C-SPAN also provided the world its first taste of true reality TV.
But the network is still hungry. Another Capitol Hill entity beckons.
“We’d like to get in the Supreme Court — an idea not too popular with the justices,” Miss Swain says. “But we’ve made progress. We were allowed to air oral arguments of Bush versus Gore four years ago. The court remains elusive.”