By John P. Ourand To the outside world, it looks like C-SPAN has had an easy ride for the past 25 years. Not only does it feature powerful lawmakers and regulators as its most prominent on-air stars (and who are, not coincidentally, the network’s biggest supporters), it is consistently held up by industry representatives as an example of what’s right about cable. Think about it. Your local congressional representative watches C-SPAN. Your senator watches C-SPAN. Just about anyone who regulates the cable business watches C-SPAN. With that level of viewership, you’d think the network brass would be confident about its place in the cable industry. Think again. C-SPAN executives still feel the need to prove the network’s value to cable operators, even though its 5-cents-per-subscriber license fee is among the industry’s lowest, and even though its true value to operators and, by extension, to viewers, rests more on its perpetual push for technological innovation than on its political and industry supporters. This innovation dominates the network’s planning for the next 25 years. For example, the current focus for co-COOs Rob Kennedy and Susan Swain, who have been in charge of C-SPAN’s day-to-day activities since 1989, is mainly on streaming Web content, not launching more channels. Potentially, the Web offers C-SPAN its biggest opportunity for growth, they say. C-SPAN’s site already provides live streams of hearings, and soon thousands of hours of hearings will be archived and available online. They expect to continue offering this service for free. "Everything needs to play out in terms of what’s happening on the computer before we think about C-SPAN4 or C-SPAN5," Swain says. "The digital universe is still settling in. We’re not sure that’s the way the digital future is going to play out." Capacity issues with regard to new services such as HDTV, VOD and telephony also come into play when it comes to launching additional networks, says Kennedy. "Digital tiers are filling up," he says. "As the capacity question gets settled, there might be room for 4 or 5." Both executives see interactive video, specifically on the Internet, as being an important cog in C-SPAN’s evolution. For instance, it would allow users to retrieve information about an on-camera politician, such as who his donors are and how he voted in the past. This type of service could help the existing TV channels as well, Swain says, allowing producers to preview video clips from their desktops. That could lead to more uses of video on the notoriously low-tech morning show Washington Journal. It also could help C-SPAN’s coverage of the next presidential election in 2008, Swain says, as it will make available video archives of a person’s entire political history. A Lot for a Nickel C-SPAN’s value to operators also rests, obviously, on its low license fee. C-SPAN president and CEO Brian Lamb, Kennedy and Swain, highlighting that value, point to C-SPAN’s three cable networks, a national radio service and an impressive online presence. "The industry gets a lot for a nickel," Lamb says, referring to the net’s license fee, a source of pride for C-SPAN. The license fee hasn’t been raised since January 1996, during which time C-SPAN launched an additional network, its radio service and its website. "Our value is higher than our cost," Lamb says. "We have to continue offering value." A History of Innovation Later this year, C-SPAN will complete a two-year, $17 million digital rebuild at its Washington, D.C., headquarters-an especially impressive figure when considering that it had a budget of $480,000 its first year in existence. That platform will be able to support new services and new technologies, says Kennedy. "We have a history of deploying technology before commercial broadcasters," Swain agrees. The network pioneered the use of robotic cameras, which helped make congressional hearings more watchable. It was one of the first networks to use handheld cameras, which allows it to employ two cameras at most events; the bigger and better-funded news networks use only one. Using two cameras at some events allowed C-SPAN to scoop news networks last month while covering the run-up to the New Hampshire primary; C-SPAN’s second camera was trained on the audience, enabling it to be the only network to show questioners and the occasional heckler. Despite early resentment from the broadcasters, C-SPAN evolved, and became the de facto congressional pool feed for other networks by the time of the Clinton impeachment hearings. C-SPAN was the pool feed for the Clarence Thomas hearings in 1991, but was kicked out when the hearings’ star witness, Anita Hill, appeared. C-SPAN’s fly-on-the-wall coverage contrasted sharply with the broadcasters’ coverage, with employed tighter shots and bright, emotional lighting. "We became the pool feed because the economics of this business changed," Swain says. C-SPAN’s digital conversion will enable it to handle HD programming if it decides to go that route, Kennedy says. Most likely, the network will look into shooting a couple of its special projects (such as its American Writers series) in hi-def. Any of the net’s hi-def plans would have to be run before C-SPAN’s board of directors. C-SPAN’s state-of-the-art distance-learning program (a 24-hour fiber loop it conducts with the University of Denver) also garners great industry support and attracts D.C.-style celebrities (former President Clinton is scheduled to address a class in May). Few Dissenting Voices It takes a lot of work to find someone in the industry to comment negatively on C-SPAN. Described as "cable’s gift to America," the network has had strong and passionate supporters in just about every corner office in the industry for the 25 years of its existence. Cable’s MSO titans dominate C-SPAN’s board, ensuring that systems carry the network. Despite this powerful support, Lamb feels as if C-SPAN still has something to prove to operators, or, to be more precise, to some management teams at the small system level. Lamb tells a story about the trouble he had earlier this year with an unnamed system that was ordered by an MSO chief (who happens to be a C-SPAN board member) to carry C-SPAN2. The system GM wasn’t happy with the edict, preferring to carry a network that would bring bigger ratings and more local ad dollars. As a result, he refused to help C-SPAN promote the launch in the local press. "That is 25 years after we started this thing up," Lamb says, without a hint of a smile. That’s the enigma of C-SPAN: lots of powerful support at the top, and tepid support from some GMs with an eye to the bottom line. It’s one of the reasons why Lamb hasn’t become comfortable with his place in the industry, even though C-SPAN is in 87 million homes (making it a top five network in terms of distribution) and C-SPAN2 is in 73 million homes (making it a top 40 network). It’s also why Lamb gets agitated when he talks about C-SPAN2, which is carried by 80-85% of U.S. cable systems. "The industry hasn’t really lived up to its promise on C-SPAN2," he says. "They should complete their promise-the promise they made 20 years ago of providing both the Senate and the House. If the industry wants total credit, it still has to roll out C-SPAN2 to all its homes." And it’s why he still carps about the system GM who balked at carrying C-SPAN2. Friends in High Places Lamb doesn’t carp too much, mind you. He appreciates the overwhelming support he’s received from the industry’s top decision makers. He spends much more time talking about former UA Columbia Cablevision owner Bob Rosencrans’ efforts to get C-SPAN off the ground than he does about various systems that don’t want his networks. He talks about the Amos Hostetters and Bill Bresnans of the industry, who carry C-SPAN on each of their systems and who are just as passionate about C-SPAN and its mission as Lamb is. Hostetter’s passion, in particular, is part of C-SPAN’s lore. Once, when a quarterly C-SPAN carriage sheet showed that the network was distributed in 99% of his systems, Hostetter called C-SPAN’s small but efficient affiliate department to complain: He wanted it to be 100%. "I disputed their math," jokes Hostetter, who has been on C-SPAN’s board since its start. "We dropped to 99% because of a minor acquisition we had made, and we didn’t change the lineup right away to include C-SPAN. It was a rounding error." Similarly, Bresnan-another board member-is equally passionate about the service, mandating that all of the systems he bought from Comcast (320,000 subscribers in Colorado, Montana, Utah and Wyoming) carry C-SPAN. A little more than a year later, he brought the C-SPAN affiliate marketing tool-the seemingly ever-present School Bus-out to a two-week, 1,500-mile tour of those systems. "Each one of those systems started putting us on. That’s because of one man," Lamb says of Bresnan’s support. That kind of support also comes from a 25-person board that includes the highest-level executives from the top 10 cable operators (which is one of the reasons why C-SPAN is referred to as a cable’s gift to America). When talking about C-SPAN, board members tend fall back on flowery language that underscores the depth of their support. "It’s America’s channel," Hostetter says. "It’s a real public service, and it’s a big contributor to our democracy." Hostetter compares the fervor of C-SPAN’s audience it to that of audiences of the history and animal niches. "It’s smaller than sports, but C-SPAN services bring a passion and are a reason some people subscribe to cable."