Monday, October 09, 2006

Gavel to Gavel


Brian Lamb was born on this day in 1941 in Lafayette, Indiana.

A former Pentagon spokesman and assistant to the director of the Office of Technology Policy in the Nixon White House, mild-mannered Brian Lamb had the temerity to try to convince America's steely-eyed major cable television operators to finance a non-profit cable TV network to cover public affairs in Washington. Before the days of 500+ cable channels, the cable companies turned out to be eager to find additional programming; so with Lamb at the helm, C-SPAN (the "Cable Satellite Public Affairs Network") became the first bona fide cable network that was not simply a "movie channel."

C-SPAN was launched on March 19, 1979 with gavel-to-gavel coverage of the U.S. House of Representatives, beginning with a speech by a young Democratic congressman named Al Gore. By 1984, backbenchers such as Republican Newt Gingrich had devised ways of making the cameras work for their benefit, delivering long speeches over the free air, denouncing the Democrats to an otherwise empty House chamber. By giving the podium to unknown freshmen and sophomores, C-SPAN activated the "young turk" movement within the post-Nixon Republican Party, as well as giving life to the previously marginalized centrist Democratic Leadership Council -- party factions that had previously failed to receive the support of traditional party leaders outside the glare of the TV klieglights.

It was only in 1986, when Senate majority leader Robert Byrd realized the members of the U.S. Senate were losing some of their celebrity status to the members of the House, that C-SPAN was allowed to cover the Senate.

Since its humble beginnings, C-SPAN has grown from one network staffed by 4 full-timers and a phone to 3 TV networks and a radio network with a $40 million annual budget, watched by 34.5 million cable subscribers every week, providing coverage not just of the House and Senate, but of major political speeches in any venue, as well as books, American history and even the proceedings of the British Parliament. Because 90% of its viewers are likely voters, C-SPAN's non-commercial, non-partisan, "just the facts" window on Washington has become one of the influential media sources within American politics.

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