A watch on Washington C-SPAN: The cable channel provides surveillance of government and coverage of events the networks skip.


WASHINGTON -- Question: If a speech is made in Washington and C-SPAN isn't there to cover it, does it make a noise?

This time of year it's hard to say. With Election Day drawing near, the whole city is talking politics, and C-SPAN seems determined to broadcast every last syllable.

"Our basic aim is to provide comprehensive and unbiased coverage of our government in action," says Steve Scully, C-SPAN's political editor. "We take that task pretty seriously."

Although action is often the last thing you see on the commercial-free cable channel, it's hard to imagine how anything on television could be more comprehensive. Watching the government work on C-SPAN is a little like watching the security monitors in a convenience store. Yet constant surveillance, according to Scully, is what the network's committed fans have come to expect.

Take a debate of third-party vice presidential candidates held last month at American University in Washington. Without C-SPAN, which stands for Cable Satellite Public Affairs Network, the only people to see the event would have been the few dozen curious onlookers who actually showed up. By airing it, C-SPAN made it available to 60 million households.

Since C-SPAN doesn't buy Nielsen ratings, the exact number of viewers remains a mystery. Just the same, they're out there. And a third-party debate is their "must-see-TV."

The debaters -- Herbert Titus of the U.S. Taxpayers Party, Jo Jorgensen of the Libertarian Party and Mike Tompkins of the Natural Law Party -- may not have much name recognition. However, that doesn't matter to C-SPAN, the only channel on television where a fall lineup like this could get two hours on prime time.

That's because C-SPAN officials see public-affairs television as an endless dialogue in which everyone, no matter how obscure, misinformed or out-and-out-wacko, is entitled to his or her air time.

True, the network has been blamed for everything from creating a policy-wonk underground to extending the Capital Beltway coast to coast. But C-SPAN junkies, predominantly middle-aged, middle class and suspicious of big government, say that's what it takes to keep an eye on Washington.

Last Tuesday was a typical programming day on C-SPAN. It began with "Washington Journal," where reporters reviewed the morning's top newspaper stories (with close-ups of major editorial pages). Then came a conference of Hispanic educators, a speech at the National Press Club by former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, a debate from Minnesota between Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone and his challenger, former GOP Sen. Rudy Boschwitz, another debate from upstate New York, and another one from Idaho.

Main concerns

To fill the gaps in between, deadpan C-SPAN moderators took calls from viewers, whose main concerns can be reduced to two endlessly repeated questions: (A) Why don't politicians tell the truth? and (B) Why does the media distort reality?

The seven-person C-SPAN crew at American University arrives to set up their cameras and equipment three hours before show time. Most of the veterans admit they are sick of politics and politicians.

"This is my third presidential campaign," says one guy.

"After awhile you just stop paying attention."

Not everybody, though, is jaded by the process.

"Want to hear some noise in the hall?" asks rookie audio man Jake Scheur, busy testing C-SPAN's signature sound effect.

There it is: the muffled chatter of incoming spectators, the clicking of heels on the floor.

"Pure C-SPAN," smiles Scheur. "Nice."

More from less

No other network large or small makes more out of less than C-SPAN does. Anybody can broadcast a political gathering. Only C-SPAN reveals what happens before it starts: the audience filing in and taking their seats, the participants nervously sizing each other up.

That's what it showed before this year's second presidential debate, and the result was dramatic coverage of Bill Clinton and Bob Dole avoiding eye contact for five tension-filled minutes. While viewers who watched the big networks heard news anchors telling them what to expect, anyone tuned in to C-SPAN got a rare glimpse of predebate psychodrama, without comment or computerized graphics.

Founder and CEO Brian Lamb started the cable channel in 1979. A spokesman for the Office of Telecommunications during the Nixon administration, and later bureau chief for a cable trade magazine, he had the idea to report what happens in Washington by showing television viewers everything the network news programs routinely leave out.

The concept became reality when late Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill endorsed Lamb's proposal for live gavel-to-gavel coverage of the House of Representatives.

C-SPAN was created by the cable industry as a nonprofit, private business. It gets its support from a monthly fee paid by cable affiliates across the country.

In the beginning, some politicians hated the idea of having a C-SPAN camera trained on them. But others, including a young Republican congressman from Georgia named Newt Gingrich, quickly realized its potential. Gingrich attacked Democrats in speeches made to an empty House chamber, but broadcast to C-SPAN's growing audience. C-SPAN made Gingrich, now House speaker, a force to be reckoned with.

In l986, C-SPAN 2 went on the air with live coverage of the 'D Senate. Since then, the broadcast schedule has been expanded to 24 hours a day, during which C-SPAN not only covers Congress, but meetings, marches and everything else that happens in Washington.

In August 1990, C-SPAN began 1,124 hours of coverage devoted to the Persian Gulf war. In October 1991, it aired 128 straight hours of Senate hearings on the nomination of Clarence Thomas the Supreme Court. And in April 1993, it was the only network to show the gay and lesbian march on Washington in its entirety.

"There are things that happen in this town that no one sees," said C-SPAN's Scully. "That's what we try to show people. What they think about it is up to them."

Show-all approach

Once C-SPAN decides to put something on the air, cutting anything out is tantamount to media sacrilege.

Lamb, 54, invented the show-all approach. Still, there are limits. When C-SPAN began 17 years ago, Lamb was its first studio personality. Now there are many, though "personality" could be the wrong word. Lamb has strict rules against any of his 200 employees injecting their personal sentiments, or even the slightest suggestion of a sentiment, into the news.

"That applies to me, too," said the intensely genial Lamb, whose regular author-interview program, "Booknotes," airs on C-SPAN Sunday nights.

"I've taken myself off the air when I thought I became the issue," he said, stressing that "the event is what's important," not C-SPAN's interpretation of it.

"The big networks can't accept what they see, so they don't show it. That's one reason why Americans have the shortest attention span in history."

There is a friendly, family feeling inside C-SPAN's Washington headquarters, but also a strong sense that programming should never slip into happy talk.

Making sure it doesn't is the job of John Splaine, professor of education at the University of Maryland. Splaine is paid to "spot check" shows and report back to Lamb whenever he notices any trace of verbal or visual bias.

"It could even be something like a camera angle that might show a member of Congress in a purposely bad light," says Splaine. "I look out for everything."

Splaine, who teaches a course in how to watch television news, thinks C-SPAN is more than your average channel selection.

"It's really an art form," he explains. "After you watch it for a while, you start to see it as a kind of video verite."

Splaine credits the network's televised form of "saturation minimalism" with changing the way American voters see politics.

Lamb agrees and hopes it's also changed the way politicians see voters. Because C-SPAN doesn't "have to deliver eyeballs to advertisers," as he puts it, his network can take the time needed to educate viewers, an estimated 80 percent of whom went to the polls in l992.

And what does the man who made Roberts Rules of Order cool watch on the tube at home?

Lamb thinks for a minute.

Maybe "The Nanny"?


"3rd Rock from the Sun"?

"No, but I have seen 'Seinfeld' a few times," he says.

The problem was it was over too fast, and he just couldn't stand the commercials.

Pub Date: 11/03/96

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