Larry Satkowiak

Brian Lamb will receive the Bresnan Ethics in Business Award at the Cable Hall of Fame in Washington D.C. on June 10. This reminded me about C-SPAN’s beginnings and his outstanding contribution to the United States. It’s the story of a quiet man from the Midwest who has had a profound impact on our society, who brought our government closer to its people and who insisted on always doing the right thing even when it was not popular.

In the mid-1970s, the country was torn apart by the Vietnam War, social unrest and President Nixon’s resignation over what was called “The Watergate Scandal.” There were three networks providing news to America from New York: NBC, CBS and ABC. The local television stations picked up the broadcast in the evening at the designated time, and if you missed it, you were simply out of luck. The American people received the news that the networks wanted them to hear, when they wanted them to hear it. Diversity of opinion among the major networks was almost nonexistent. Brian Lamb’s vision emerged out of this tumultuous time.

He envisioned a network devoted to public affairs and not the news as it was presented at the time, which he believed was a filtered version of what the networks thought was important. A public affairs program could provide an unfiltered view of the government at work and provide long-form interviews with public officials who govern the country. Lamb emphasized this important distinction and believed it would set his network apart from the other networks. First, he had to convince two groups that this was important: the cable industry and the government.

He knocked on doors, made phone calls and scheduled appointments to see cable industry executives. Several operators gave him enough money to purchase a video camera and a tape machine. Others were not as kind. He and his good friend, John Evans, who ran Arlington Cable, discussed how to get a signal from Washington D.C. to Arlington Cable and then to an earth station for wider distribution. Lamb did interviews with members of Congress and sent the tapes back to their local cable systems. Then in 1977, a group of cable executives called the “Cable Satellite Access Entity” met in Washington D.C. to hear ideas about new content they could place on a satellite. Lamb was one of many executives to make a pitch to the group, and at the end of his presentation, Bob Rosencrans approached him and said that they liked his idea. Rosencrans gave him a check for $25,000 and said that he would help raise the money from other cable operators. The fundraising was tough, as no one in government had signed on to the concept.

Undeterred, he scheduled an interview with Representative Lionel Van Deerlin, who was chairman of the House Telecommunications Subcommittee, and presented his vision. Van Deerlin called Lamb later that day and told him to get whatever information he had on his idea to him immediately, because they were planning a vote on the issue in an hour. The House adopted the measure to televise its proceedings by a 325-80 vote. Lamb then made a presentation to the NCTA board and signed up 22 cable operators who pledged a total of $425,000 to launch the Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network. On March 19, 1977, C-SPAN began cablecasting the House of Representatives live to 3.5 million households.

Brian Lamb would be the first to point out that he did not do this alone. John Evans, Bob Rosencrans, Amos Hostetter, Ralph Baruch, Tom Wheeler, John Saeman, Bob Miron and many others all had a part in bringing together what is known as “cable’s gift to the American people.” C-SPAN is a nonprofit corporation that has never received any government funding; its expenses are supported by the cable and satellite companies who carry the programming. Brian–on behalf of all of us in cable: Thank you for your good work.
 
(Larry Satkowiak is president and CEO of The Cable Center, the nonprofit educational arm of the cable industry. The Center preserves cable’s enduring contributions to society, strengthens relationships between cable and academia and unites the industry around the advancement of exceptional customer service. www.cablecenter.org)

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