Albion Monitor /Commentary

How C-SPAN is Getting Screwed

by Brian Lamb, CEO of C-SPAN

It's nothing short of ironic that the government keeps throwing regulatory roadblocks in our path
You would think the folks in Congress, the FCC, and other agencies in Washington would like C-SPAN. Our two networks, C-SPAN and C-SPAN2 provide millions of Americans with round-the-clock, ad-free coverage of news and public affairs events, including the floor proceedings of the U.S. House and Senate. Most everything we cover is televised from beginning to end, without interruptions or commentary. Every year, we transmit over 17,000 hours of programming, all aimed at informing viewers about our American system.

Our networks were created by just the kind of public-service initiative the government purports to foster: Without prodding by government mandate, cable television leaders created C-SPAN in 1979 to operate entirely within the private sector as a non-profit company. Over the next 18 years, these same leaders have contributed more than $230 million to C-SPAN, and have not taken a penny of taxpayer money to support the project. Just as significantly, they set aside one or two of the highly-sought-after channels on their cable systems to carry C-SPAN.

From our first day of operation, C-SPAN programming has easily met the government's public-interest standard (the general legal standard radio and television broadcasters must meet in order to keep their right to use the public's airwaves). Despite that, it has been an upside-down world for C-SPAN whenever government policy is at issue -- whether Democrats or Republicans were in charge. At a time when the major commercial networks are being prodded by Congress to serve the public interest with just 3 hours of children's programming per week, it's nothing short of ironic that the government keeps throwing regulatory roadblocks in our path.

C-SPAN2's coverage was dropped from Portland just at the time many of Sen. Packwood's constituents might have been interested in following his ethics troubles
Among the most egregious examples: the 1992 resurrection of an old rule requiring cable operators to carry local broadcast stations on their systems. The idea, successfully lobbied by the broadcast industry, was to preserve local broadcasting as cable's market dominance grew. This "must carry" rule might sound reasonable, but it put the federal government into the programming business-a questionable action on First Amendment grounds. And it had an unintended consequence: 3 million homes lost all or part of the C-SPAN networks.

Here's how it happened: "Must carry" forced systems to carry broadcast stations-even when hardly anybody watched them -- just because they had a license to operate in a nearby area. Network affiliates were required to add nearby affiliates with programming nearly identical to stations they already carried. With limited channel capacity, a number of cable companies were forced to drop channels to comply with the rule. Some chose to drop C-SPAN. So several million cable subscribers are now able to watch a couple of extra shopping channels, or the same commercial network program on two or three different channels. But they've lost all or part of their round-the-clock eye on Washington.

Our experience in Portland, Oregon, demonstrates another perverse aspect of the rule: the way it has stretched the definition of a marketplace to give broadcast stations special access to communities that used to be beyond their reach. Seeing an opportunity in this new definition, the owners of an unused broadcast license issued to serve Eugene, Oregon, sold their license to the owners of the start-up Warner Brothers' Network. WBN promptly boosted the existing station's signal, and qualified for "must carry" status on Portland cable systems-100 miles away. To make room for the new network, C-SPAN2's coverage of the Senate was dropped from 96,000 Portland homes -- just at the time many of Sen. Robert Packwood's constituents might have been interested in following our coverage of his ethics troubles. C-SPAN2 remains unavailable to this part of Portland to this day.

Too bad that 1.5 million of the cable homes that got Rupert Murdoch's f/X and other channels got them at the expense of C-SPAN and C-SPAN2
It gets worse. In the same '92 cable bill, Congress came up with another rule called "retransmission consent." Retransmission consent gave broadcasters the right to charge cable operators high fees for the privelege of carrying programming that the operators had previously been broadcasting for free (apart from paying low copyright fees). While cable operators naturally had no desire to pay the new fees, the networks were equally unwilling to pull their programming off the air in retaliation -- after all, distribution is the name of the game. But the new law allowed the networks to play a complex game of chicken with the cable operators: In exchange for waiving the new fees, broadcasters insisted that cable operators hand over scarce channel capacity to carry new programming channels that broadcasters would create-regardless of whether there was any demand for them. Congress and the regulators didn't intend it, but their idea of retransmission consent helped the big broadcasters create a slew of new channels by guaranteeing special access for services like Rupert Murdoch's f/X, ABC/Disney's ESPN2, Scripps Howard's Home and Garden TV, and Microsoft/General Electric's MSNBC. Too bad that 1.5 million of the cable homes that got those channels got them at the expense of C-SPAN and C-SPAN2.

In Iowa, home of the quadrennial presidential caucuses, eight small towns lost their access to C-SPAN because of retransmission consent deals that brought them Murdoch's f/X channel. Unless the owner of those systems can find the capital to increase their channel capacity in the next couple of years, the residents of Algona, Audubon, Belmond, Centerville, Hampton, Laurens, Osage, and Pocahontas, won't be able to watch when our "Road to the White House" series covers the Iowa caucuses in 2000.

By mandating preferential treatment for broadcast channels and commercial-station owner groups through "must carry" and "retransmission consent," the government has made C-SPAN -- and other cable networks -- second class citizens in the world of television. It's hard to believe that this is the kind of public interest the government originally had in mind.

There's more. Most cable systems are required by franchise agreements with the towns and cities they serve to set aside channels for use by the public at large, by educational institutions, and by the government. These so-called PEG channels are often used for their intended purposes; but just as often they remain dark or are rarely used. Since they were reserved to serve the public interest, dark PEG channels would seem to present an opportunity for the non-profit C-SPAN or C-SPAN2 to step in -- especially in the markets where operators have had to cut back on our programming.

Not so. FCC rules are such that, once a PEG channel has been set aside, it remains set aside at least until the cable operator's franchise is up for renewal. Despite a national communications policy to regulate in the public interest, our lawmakers and regulators have taken such a narrow view of the PEG concept that here again, the C-SPAN networks are denied access to an audience.

Apparently C-SPAN's great mistake has been to attempt to serve the public without asking the government for either permission or money
In March 1996, the FCC presented us with yet another unintended, and still potentially serious, threat. Cable systems are mandated by federal law to reserve a portion of their channel space for lease to all comers (the infamous cable-access channels). The idea was to allow even the "little guys" access to cable systems. But prodded by "big guys" -- regional home-shopping networks and others-the FCC proposed new rules that would have dramatically lowered the rates cable operators could charge to lease these channels. The result would have meant C-SPAN being pushed off many cable systems in favor of infomercials, shopping channels and gambling, and even programming like the "Blue Revue," which uses leased access to sell phone sex over cable systems in the San Diego market-all sanctioned by the government's leased-access rules. Only after strong protest from the cable industry did the FCC change its direction. Nevertheless, the new rules-announced in early February-still put our network at risk of being dropped or cut back.

For C-SPAN, the '90s have become the decade of recurring regulatory roadblocks. Most recently, in trying to manage the merger of Time Warner and Turner Broadcasting, the government -- this time the Federal Trade Commission -- again seemed to have blinders on to C-SPAN's style of news and public affairs. In pursuit of some vision of managed competition, the FTC ordered Time Warner to place a 24-hour news channel on some of its cable systems as a competitor to its newly acquired CNN. It seems that, according to the federal government, C-SPAN did not qualify as a competing news channel because we're not supported by paid advertising, don't carry sports news, and don't report on the weather. By the FTC's standards, the early Huntley-Brinkley reports, lacking both sports and weather, wouldn't have been considered "news" either.

But this is more than an issue of wounded pride at having been defined right out of the news business. The FTC's ruling meant that C-SPAN was faced with yet another competitor for limited channel space, thanks solely to Washington's meddling. When the government prescribes how channels should be allocated -- a bit like telling a bookstore which books its should sell -- it automatically handicaps networks like ours that don't hold a broadcast license, and therefore don't benefit from such mandates.

These examples are not the whole story. But taken together, they account for C-SPAN or C-SPAN2 -- and sometimes both -- being cut back, interrupted, or dropped from almost 9 million households over the past five years. Obviously, our network must be doing something wrong to be so disliked, or simply ignored by the federal government. What could it be?

The answer, as it so often is in our society, is money. Commercial broadcasters get free licenses from the government for airwaves belonging to the public from which they make billions of dollars. This virtually guarantees that those networks will get lots of attention -- from the government and the public -- both when they resist airing programs in the public interest, and again when they actually agree to do so. And although they are not-for-profit, public broadcasters also get plenty of attention when they sign big underwriting contracts from corporate America, buy expensive programming series, and seek operating funds from Congress or their viewers.

Apparently C-SPAN's great mistake has been to attempt to serve the public without asking the government for either permission or money. In today's society, is our network considered misguided because we never sought to create any wealth for anybody? Did we err in trying to keep our programming costs in line, spending conservatively in a big-money business? We thought it would encourage more people to carry our public-service programming, but what it has really done is make C-SPAN nearly invisible to federal rule writers. "Public interest" is a much-vaunted American ideal, but when you seek simply to operate in the public interest, without making or spending big bucks, you get ignored. Money drives the American engine, in television and elsewhere.

No, the government doesn't hate C-SPAN. Somehow, our network just keeps falling between the cracks when the rules are written.

In this context, the cable industry's continuing support of the C-SPAN networks is worth noting. After all, cable operators are in business to make money, too. Yet, despite the examples cited here, most systems have juggled channel lineups to retain C-SPAN, even in the face of "must carry," retransmission consent, leased access, rate regulation, PEG requirements-and whatever else the government has thrown at them. And they've done this even though C-SPAN, unlike most other programming services, costs them money and offers no chance to recoup their investment through advertising sales. In current Madison Avenue parlance: They're just doing the right thing. But the government certainly hasn't made it easy.

So, what does C-SPAN want? No favors from the government, but no artificial impediments, either. Left to compete in a truly free marketplace, C-SPAN has shown in the past that it can flourish. But Congress has been playing favorites in the television marketplace and, in so doing, has begun to stifle its own voice.

Brian Lamb is the CEO of C-SPAN
This commentary first appeared in Washington Monthly

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Albion Monitor April 6, 1997 (

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