C-SPAN co-CEOs Rob Kennedy and Susan Swain at 2019 Cable Hall of Fame.
C-SPAN co-CEOs Rob Kennedy and Susan Swain at 2019 Cable Hall of Fame.

C-SPAN has started searching for a new CEO with longtime co-CEOs Rob Kennedy and Susan Swain stepping down this year, Cablefax has learned and confirmed.

It’s a rare changing of the guard for the non-profit public affairs network, which turns 45 on March 19. C-SPAN founder Brian Lamb served as CEO since the company’s founding in 1978, with Kennedy and Swain (then co-presidents) stepping into the co-CEO roles in 2012.

Kennedy, who also serves as C-SPAN’s CFO, has targeted mid-May for his retirement. The network has named Matt Deprey, Vice President, Finance to replace him in this role. Swain’s plans are more fluid as she intends to assist through the transition. Observant viewers may have noticed that Swain has stepped back from all on-air hosting duties, with the “Q&A” series starting 2024 with Peter Slen in the host seat.

C-SPAN board Chair and former Cox Communications CEO Pat Esser has been working with the duo for more than a year on a succession plan, with the board recently selecting Carlsen Resources to conduct the search for a new CEO. Esser hopes to have a successor named by May or June, with a search committee that includes himself, Lamb, Swain and Kennedy that will make a final recommendation to the executive board.

“I am blown away by the candidates that [Carlsen Resources’ CEO] Ann Carlsen has already told us about. This week, we begin talking to candidates. We’ll be talking to candidates through March,” Esser told CFX.

While C-SPAN went internal for its only other CEO transition (Kennedy joined the network in 1987 and Swain began in C-SPAN’s programming department in 1982), this time it’s looking outside the 175-employee organization.

“People always say does it have to be a media leader? There are a number of media leaders we’re talking to. Does it have to be? Maybe not, but it sure helps,” Esser said. “Things we’re looking for are probably no big surprise—critical thinking skills, interpersonal communication skills, team leadership skills… [Someone who] can go run a C-suite team of people. There’s an energy, passion and optimism that we think is a requirement to run and head up C-SPAN. Someone has to believe in the mission. That’s really, really, really important.”

As a public service created by the U.S. cable industry, C-SPAN’s mission is to provide audiences with access to live gavel-to-gavel proceedings of the House and Senate as well as other forums where public policy is discussed—all without commentary or analysis. The venerable institution prides itself on being all business so as not to distract from the work being done on screen. C-SPAN operates 3 TV networks, a D.C.-based FM station, a website and video archive with more than 300,000 hours of contemporary political programming, and programs several digital products for mobile users and connected TVs.

The environment C-SPAN grew up in has certainly changed, with programmers across the cable lineup experiencing the financial pinch of losing affiliate fees due to cord-cutting. While navigating that developing landscape will be part of the new CEO’s role, Esser stressed that Kennedy and Swain have already been hard at work on it, rolling out new digital platforms over the last few years, including new CTV app C-SPAN Select. C-SPAN has increased product licensing, launched advertising on its digital platforms and initiated individual donor solicitation. The co-CEOS also have led C-SPAN through COVID, a restructuring due to the decline in linear cable subscriptions and a multi-million dollar technical and headquarters upgrade.

“Today, 99% of the funding for C-SPAN comes from the cable industry. It’s a nonprofit that’s fully funded by the cable industry. We know we have to diversify that revenue stream, and it will diversify over time,” said Esser. “In the meantime, we’re very blessed. We have a really well funded organization. We have a fair amount of money put in reserve that we’ve done over the last 20 years to buy us a lot of time. But you obviously want to get on stable footing and not have that be the way you survive over a decade.”

Asked about whether he’s concerned that the search is taking place during a presidential election year, Esser pointed to the “humble” but “very experienced” group of leaders at C-SPAN that drive the engine and will still be in place during the search as well as its very engaged board.

“The challenge probably of our government today is stuff that’s very predictable becomes very unpredictable,” Esser said, pointing to the decision that gave C-SPAN’s cameras special access to the historic Speaker of the House vote in January 2023. “We had to scramble and it was unbelievable that they covered all that. You got to see stuff with a House you’ve never seen in your lifetime. You got to see how a Speaker is elected. Usually, the parties are very protective of that because they don’t have to share that. They can control where the cameras are, what you can see and can’t see. My point is, given our current environment, who knows what can happen at any time.”

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