Not many American television networks advertise their birthdays, but the Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network, better known as C-SPAN is a little different. C-SPAN is busy celebrating its 25th year in broadcasting, and a lot of people are celebrating with it. About 35 million viewers say they tune in daily to at least one of the network's three public affairs channels, provided commercial-free by the U.S. cable television industry, and available on radio and the internet as well. What they get is live coverage of Congressional debates and hearings, as well as a wide range of other political and cultural events.
A dozen top C-SPAN editors are gathered around a large conference table, poring over possibilities for the next few days of programming. Spread out across the table are copies of Congressional schedules, hearing summaries and press releases, along with notes on speeches and campaign appearances by the president and his Democratic challengers. There are notices of administration briefings, from the White House, and the Defense, State and Homeland Security Departments, that C-SPAN will be covering live. Also on the schedule - a regular live feed of the British Prime Minister's Question Time, from the House of Commons in London.
That C-SPAN can manage to cover all these events is a reflection of how far the cable network has come since its modest start 25 years ago. The growth of the network has been driven, says senior producer Steven Sculley, by C-SPAN's core educational mission.
"This network began across the Potomac in Northern Virginia, with a staff of four people and a budget of a couple hundred thousand dollars," he said. "If you looked at how we've developed over the years, we have better graphics, equipment, satellite equipment and its cheaper. We can do more with less. But the basic mission has remained the same: to educate the American people, to be the eyes and ears of the political process in this town. Whether it's a floor proceeding in the House or Senate, a hearing or any other aspect of Washington, we are three networks, ten websites and a radio station able to bring Washington to the rest of the country."
Today, CSPAN's annual budget has grown to $40 million, which it uses to cast an unblinking eye on the democratic process. Steve Sculley says congressmen and senators know that with CSPAN, their speeches and legislative activities can be witnessed far beyond Capitol Hill's ornate and often empty chambers.
"We've been able to make the rest of the country Washington insiders," he said. "We've let them feel as if they are part of the process because they can watch a hearing, see a candidate on a campaign stump without ever leaving their living rooms. They can watch the debates, understand what happens on a 'markup' on a House or Senate bill, the president at a news conference. They can watch the daily briefing with the White House press secretary. All of it is now available; 20-25 years ago it was unheard of." One of C-SPAN's most popular programs is Washington Journal, a live daily call-in show. Callers from the right, left and center of America's political spectrum keep the lines busy.
Executive producer Steve Scully says he's amazed at the wide range of C-SPAN viewers.
"I can be in a taxi in Washington, D.C., and the taxi driver who is from India or Pakistan or Ghana will recognize me and complement us for what we do," he said. "College professors or blue-collar workers we do cover the spectrum. There's no one typical viewer. What makes them similar is that they're politically active, interested in the process and they vote. Ninety-plus percent of our viewers vote.
What keeps them all hooked on C-SPAN, says Mr. Sculley, is the network's policy of staying neutral on the issues of the day.
"It's just the facts, just the events," he explained. "We're not a personality-driven network. So for people who tune in, they can see the House and Senate without all the graphics and the 'crawl' at the bottom of the screen. It's a straightforward, simple approach. In that respect, we don't get feedback. We do get feedback when people look at things through their own prism. Democrats may think we favor Republicans because we put a Republican dinner on or we put George Bush on during the day. I would have to say, in 25 years, nobody has ever said we're unfair."
What's in store for CSPAN's next quarter century? Executive producer Steve Scully says the cable network is thinking globally, laying plans to partner with cable and satellite networks in other countries to carry C-SPAN's political and cultural programming. Mr. Sculley believes audiences in Asia, Europe, in Iraq and much of the Middle East, would welcome a C-SPAN channel which showed them how the democratic process - warts and all - actually works in the United States.