Want to know just how purposefully un-glamorous and resolutely non-partisan is C-SPAN, the pioneering public-affairs TV network founded by Brian Lamb in 1978?
Consider this: In countless appearances spanning thousands of hours of interviews and call-in programs, Lamb has never once uttered his own name on the air. Too showy. Too much like regular TV, which is what Lamb, a stolid Hoosier, has always sought to avoid.
“No one does that here,” he protested on Monday. “We just don’t do it. It’s always been part of our mission not to make us the center of attention . . .. We’re the antithesis of everything you see on commercial television.”
So Lamb, typically, also wasn’t making a big deal about the news C-SPAN buried in the second paragraph of a news announcement it issued in the dead of Sunday evening: that after 34 years as C-SPAN’s chief executive, he’s stepping down from running the Washington-based operation he conceived and built.
Lamb, 70, isn’t fading away entirely. He’ll continue as executive chairman of the nonprofit organization and as host of “Q & A,” his Sunday interview program. He also plans to continue teaching, primarily at Purdue University, his alma mater.
But he’s handing over day-to-day operations to two successors-in-waiting: current co-presidents Rob Kennedy, 55, and Susan Swain, 57, both longtime C-SPAN hands.
“This has been something I’ve wanted to do for a while,” Lamb said. “I wanted an orderly transition when everyone was ambulatory and standing up, with some thought behind it.”
Lamb was a young naval officer in the 1960s who used to slip over to the Capitol from the Washington Navy Yard to watch floor debates in the House and Senate. He later served as a telecommunications staffer in the Johnson and Nixon administrations and as a press secretary for Colorado Sen. Peter Dominick (R).
As the Washington bureau chief of the cable TV trade magazine Cablevision in the 1970s, Lamb cooked up the idea for a network that would cover, with utter dispassion, the congressional debates that he’d witnessed during his Navy days. Lamb rustled up the money from some public relations-conscious cable barons and set about convincing the House to let TV cameras onto the floor.
C-SPAN, which stands for Cable Satellite Public Affairs Network, was among the first nationally distributed cable channels, following after the debut of HBO, Showtime, Pat Robertson’s CBN Network, and WTBS, Ted Turner’s “super station.” It is now composed of three networks, plus a Washington radio station (WCSP, 90.1 FM), and a massive and historically rich video archive of congressional sessions, hearings, speeches, campaign rallies, think-tank conferences, author interviews and what-have-yous from C-SPAN over the years.
Lamb holds the distinction of being the only one of those early network founders not to become a billionaire from his creation. On the other hand, he says, “I never wanted to be rich. I wasn’t the slightest bit interested in that.”
He had to settle instead for helping to revolutionize the political culture of Washington. What MTV did for popular music — that is, helped make it theatrical and visual — C-SPAN did for Congress and the wonks who follow it.
C-SPAN’s gavel-to-gavel coverage of the House changed the spontaneous, freewheeling debates on the floor into more scripted and polished speeches played for the TV cameras, said Charles Johnson, a former House parliamentarian. Members became conscious that their words weren’t just going into the Congressional Record; they now had an audience at home, leading to charts and props and camera-friendly displays that hadn’t existed before.
It also led to an increase in grandstanding. In 1984, the fiery, after-hours speeches of a young Republican backbencher named Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) so angered House Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) that he ordered the House cameras (then as now under House control) to pan the empty chamber in an effort to embarrass Gingrich.
Nevertheless, after disdaining to follow the House for more than six years, the Senate finally relented and let C-SPAN carry its proceedings live in 1986.
Having the cameras on hand “changed the quality of the oratory,” said Johnson, avoiding direct judgment on whether it did so in a good or bad way.
Lamb says he doesn’t care either way: “If there’s a public meeting, there ought to be cameras there,” he says. “Those meetings are paid for by we, the taxpayers. People should be able to see what [the elected officials] look like, what the buildings look like, what language they’re using.”
Through all those decades, Lamb has been the continuous thread: unflashy, unemotional, “a video Buddha, television’s most stationary being,” in the words of one magazine writer. In 23 years of hosting “Booknotes,” his author-interview show, for example, he notes that he never missed a single Sunday night, for 52 weeks every year. In total, he’s logged more hours on national TV than perhaps any person in America.
He’s not bragging about that, of course. Or much else.
“I never thought the person on top here mattered all that much, except to keep the rhythm of the place going,” he said. “We’ve established a good transition. I don’t think my departure will be more than a blip on the radar screen.”