The Cable Satellite Public Affairs Network, or C-SPAN, a nonprofit company with the stated mission of providing public access to the political process, makes it possible for the public to view firsthand congressional floor debates and committee meetings, opportunities that Congress had long attempted to stifle.
Founded in the 1970s by Brian Lamb, C-SPAN operates from profits generated by the cable industry rather than from tax monies.
Early attempts to broadcast congressional activity blocked
Several earlier attempts to allow broadcasts of congressional activity had failed.
- In 1922 a proposal by Rep. Vincent Brennan, R-Mich., to permit radio coverage of the House and Senate died in committee.
- Two years later, a similar measure passed the Senate but was not implemented because of the expense.
- Finally, in 1932, debate on the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution was broadcast to the radio audience—but only because two reporters surreptitiously placed microphones in a House doorway.
After the opening of the Eightieth Congress was televised in 1947, TV coverage was limited for decades to occasional big events, including the 1951 Kefauver Commission hearings on organized crime and the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings.
Rule change leads to airing of Senate Watergate Committee
It was not until 1970 that congressional committees were permitted to set their own rules for televised coverage. That change in the rules paved the way for the commercial networks to provide gavel-to-gavel airings of the Senate Watergate Committee and the House Judiciary Committee hearings on the impeachment of President Richard M. Nixon in 1973.
The momentum of those hearings helped make House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr. amenable to the creation of some means of getting representatives’ words back to their home districts in full context instead of in truncated sound bites.
Brian Lamb, then Washington bureau chief of Cablevision magazine, used his contacts to approach cable TV insiders and politicians about the concept of airing House activities on cable stations nationwide. Although the new channel would air no advertising, and would be paid for by the cable industry, cable operators were persuaded that performing such a public service would solidify the fledgling industry’s credibility with viewers and improve its contacts with the federal government.
Leaders wanted more visibility to constituents back home
C-SPAN began airing floor activities of the House of Representatives in 1979.
The Senate was a tougher sell, with coverage coming after Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., the Senate minority leader, was introduced as the Speaker of the House on a trip back home.
That mistake helped convince Byrd that the Senate needed television coverage if only to make sure the House did not become the more visible chamber. In 1986 the Senate voted to allow cable coverage, and C- SPAN II was born.
C-SPAN has launched additional channels and a website
Since then, the network also has launched C-SPAN III, C-SPAN Radio, and www.c-span.org, which provides streaming audio and video. In addition to House and Senate coverage, programming now includes viewer call-in shows, interviews with authors, and a program about the judicial system, although the Supreme Court continues to reject C-SPAN’s requests for television access to its proceedings.
C-SPAN camera angles came under fire
Since C-SPAN’s inception, the House and Senate have controlled the camera angles in Congress. Consequently, the network’s reputation for objective, neutral coverage came under fire in the 1980s because of the way the cameras were used.
As Republican conservatives in the House came to dominate special order speeches, given at the end of the day’s legislative business, the Democratic majority attempted to embarrass the opposition by directing camera operators to pan the chamber, showing it to be virtually empty.
This practice continued until 1994, when House rules were changed to require the parties to take turns in taking the floor first during special orders and to limit the time spent on them.
This article was originally published in 2009. Gina Logue is a 20 year radio journalism veteran who has covered events ranging from presidential elections to the 1996 Summer Olympics. Since 2001, she has worked in the Office of News and Media Relations at MTSU and has won over 20 awards for her work there.