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On C-SPAN, it's politics, politics, politics, politics


WASHINGTON -- It is the Paul E. Tsongas of television channels, so defiantly anti-chic it is almost chic, so acutely non-hip it is nearly hip.

With no glitz, no polish and no commercial breaks, C-SPAN, cable television's wondrously droning and ubiquitous unchannel, wallows in being everything network television is not.

As the Cable Satellite Public Affairs Network covers its fourth presidential campaign -- bringing to 55 million cable households every whimper of a candidate's stump speech, every "Good-to-see-ya" of a glad-handing session, every pointed finger every debate -- the 13-year-old network has become what one media analyst calls "the hobby magazine of politics."

But even outside the Capital Beltway, it has become so much a part of the culture that trend-arbiter "Saturday Night Live" parodied one of its broadcasts this year, so much a part of the lexicon that one female Bush aide recently referred to less desirable males of the Republican sort as "galoshes-and-C-SPAN guys."

Along with the network's mainstay -- House and Senate sessions, congressional hearings, news maker speeches, call-in shows, think tank and conference panels -- viewers are receiving a heavy dose, about 1,200 hours, of political coverage this election year.

On its two channels -- and with an $18 million budget funded by the 98 percent of the nation's cable operators that carry the service -- self-pronounced political junkies have been able to watch what the network calls "video verite."

They saw presidential candidate Tom Harkin mutter "sonofabitch" and blow his nose (without hankie) as he worked with a construction crew in Manchester, N.H. They watched as candidate Tsongas took a dive in his Speedo swimsuit at a YMCA, as a smiling Vice President Dan Quayle unwittingly waltzed into a diner of angry voters, as candidate Bill Clinton bit into a sea urchin at a fish factory and managed a "Good" as his face said otherwise.

Last November, a camera caught Bob Kerrey making an off-color joke about lesbians, though C-SPAN executives chose not to broadcast the comments since the candidate did not know he was being recorded.

"These are little things you would never get on regular news," says Marvin Kalb, who heads Harvard's Center on Press, Politics and Public Policy. "They're not significant news, but they're so insightful, and for junkies, it's mother's milk."

Campaign coverage on the not-for-profit network has been so extensive -- it plans gavel-to-gavel coverage of this summer's conventions -- that Peggy Connolly, press secretary for Mr. Tsongas, calls C-SPAN "one of the most significant new developments in American politics."

She credits the network, which followed the former Massachusetts senator's candidacy from beginning to end, with introducing him to the American public. "When a lot of other folks didn't believe, C-SPAN was willing to fill the airwaves with Paul Tsongas," she says.

In fact, the public affairs network may have been especially important this campaign year with a field of largely unknown Democrats and with the three traditional networks cutting back on political coverage by one-third from the last election cycle, says Richard Noyes, political tracking director for the Center for Media and Public Affairs.

L "That left more of a void for C-SPAN to jump into," he says.

But like long division in a computer age, C-SPAN has limited appeal. There are no shortcuts to the headlines, no news roundups, no sound bites. Whether it's a House hearing on cold medication effectiveness or "Question Time" from the House of Commons, everything is covered in its entirety ("gavel-to-gavel, whatever we put on," explains founder, chairman and frequent on-air host Brian Lamb) and without commentary, interruption, analysis or spin.

"People who watch us want to make up their own minds," says Mr. Lamb, who presides over a staff of 180 at C-SPAN's Capitol Hill headquarters.

"Once they get past the 'gee, this doesn't look like anything else on my television set,' then they start to get into it and begin to say, 'Well, I can understand that. I've got two eyes and two ears. I can figure out what they're saying.' They may only watch 10 minutes of a 30-minute speech, but that's better than 30 seconds. . . . There's a tremendous amount of resentment on the part of the public about television news people telling them how to think."

Some media analysts believe the format has given rise to such network programs as "48 Hours," which takes an in-depth look at one subject, or even the year-old Court TV cable channel that covers trials in full. Merrill Brown, senior vice president of Court TV, says the success of C-SPAN's long format "encouraged us in our start-up period." But unlike C-SPAN, the court network provides much hand-holding in the form of analysis, graphics and commentary.

Without such filters, "you have to take into account that you're probably misleading some people," says political analyst Terry Michael, citing news conferences during the Persian Gulf war that provided information, before reporters could check it out, which was sometimes erroneous.

Still, C-SPAN executives are so committed to a non-biased, non-embellished approach that they employ University of Maryland Professor John Swain to critique the neutrality of their coverage. Mr. Swain has advised them on everything from camera angles (a straight-on shot is the only neutral angle, he says) to cutaway reaction shots (during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, he urged them to aim the camera on Republican and Democratic senators with equal frequency).

"If they do start sensationalizing things, they ask me to point it out," says Mr. Swain.

But "sensational" and C-SPAN are not words often found in the same sentence.

A former cable magazine editor and communications aide in the Nixon and Johnson White Houses, Mr. Lamb approached cable companies with his idea in 1979 out of "personal frustration" in the way the three major networks covered news.

"The fact that New York made the decision as to what got on the evening news shows seemed kind of a silly way to determine what the American people saw," he says. "What New York is interested in and what [my hometown] Lafayette, Ind., is interested in are two different things."

But whether or not Lafayette is, indeed, watching C-SPAN is hard to gauge. Since there are no advertisers, there are no Nielsen ratings or any need for them. Nationwide surveys have shown that four in 10 adults watch C-SPAN at some point over a year; six in 10 never watch.

Viewers are largely men, age 25 to 54, a few more Democrats than Republicans, and a high percentage of independents. Not surprisingly, large chunks of the audience come from political and media circles.

"I'm so much of a C-SPAN junkie that I refuse to take cable into my home or it's liable to occupy all my time," says Mr. Kalb. "I only watch it at the office."

D8 But often, he sneaks over on the weekends for a fix.

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