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CongressLine - A Contemporary Endangered Species: C-SPAN

By Carol M. Morrissey, Published on March 24, 1997

CongressLine

Carol M. Morrissey has been the Legislative Specialist for the Washington, D. C. office of Chicago's Sidley & Austin for 11 years. She is a lawyer and legislative expert who has also authored a Congressional update column for the last 4 years.

(Archived April 21, 1997)


As a person who lives and breathes Congress, C-SPAN is an integral and essential part of my day. C-SPAN (which stands for Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network) is a non-profit cable network which provides nonstop, entirely non-partisan Congressional coverage while Congress is in session, and informative and innovative public affairs programming for the balance of the time. My obvious wholehearted support for C-SPAN and its no nonsense approach to news does show my bias, but a 1996 survey by the Center for Media and Public Affairs found that C-SPAN is viewed by the public as a more credible news source than the major networks and many major newspapers. However, it is being dropped or reduced by many cable companies around the nation.

Between February 1993 and August 1996, approximately 8 million C-SPAN subscribers were eliminated or relegated to part-time status, mainly due to changes effected by the 1992 Cable Act. Service had been restored to the majority of these households when the rules were modified again in August of 1996 and C-SPAN lost another 2.3 million subscribers. There are currently 5 million outstanding viewers whose C-SPAN service has been slashed or eliminated. These disruptions can be attributed to a variety of factors.

One culprit is the Cable Television Consumer Protection and Competition Act of 1992, which instituted the controversial practices of "must carry" and "retransmission consent." Cable systems are now mandated to "carry" local broadcast stations in their lineups upon request and can charge for the signal on the cable channel lineup. The burden these rules has placed on an industry already at full capacity is evident - cable systems began eliminating cable-only channels to make room for the local broadcast stations. The cable industry, including C-SPAN, is challenging the must carry rule in the Supreme Court (Turner v. FCC, Case No. 95-992). Arguments were heard by the Justices on October 7, 1996 and a decision is expected any day.

The much touted Telecommunications Act of 1996, which deregulated cable TV prices and spawned a series of mergers and buyouts within the industry, turned out to be C-SPAN's nemesis. The FTC became alarmed by one of the larger mergers involving Time Warner and Turner Broadcasting, and ordered Time Warner to carry a cable news service to compete with CNN, a Turner program. As a result, Time Warner added MSNBC, causing many cable systems to drop C-SPAN.

Another source of C-Span's problems is stepped up commercial competition within a strapped cable industry. A recent development, spearheaded by media giants such as Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., is the practice of paying cable operators per subscriber for a place on their system. Nonprofits like C-SPAN who are unable to compete in a bidding war have lost ground to Murdoch's Fox News Channel. Cable channels are also dropping C-SPAN for programs in which they have a financial stake. For example, TCI (Tele-Communications, Inc.) stopped carrying C-SPAN2 to residents of Suffolk County, NY and added the Animal Planet network and BET, which are partly owned by the TCI national parent company.

You may be wondering why there has not been more of a hue and cry from the injured party in this case. C-SPAN is treading very carefully on this issue due to its singular position in the industry. C-SPAN was created by the cable industry as a public service in 1979 to provide gavel-to-gavel coverage of the House of Representative - and to fill large amounts of empty channel space. In 1986, C-SPAN2 was added to cover the activities of the Senate. It is, and always has been, totally subsidized by the industry. In an ironic economic sense, the largest cable companies are both C-SPAN's greatest benefactors and detractors, since its largest supporters control the markets where it has lost the most air time.

In order to retain its unique nonpartisan voice, C-SPAN does not intend to accept advertising or to look to the government for a solution. There are those who say that this is a temporary phenomenon which will be cured by the advent of new digital technology and the opening up of more channels (although sceptics say it only means you will have to buy a new digitized TV).

The battle is being fought in the here and now through grassroots groups such as Citizens for C-SPAN, which was formed by Seattle resident Regina LaBelle when TCI cut her C-SPAN coverage in half. Intense lobbying from the group restored full carriage of C-SPAN within 5 weeks. (They can be reached at ttreanor@halcyon.com ) When you sign on to the C-SPAN web site at http://www.c-span.org there is a primer on what viewers can do to help C-SPAN and steps to follow if your service has been adversely affected.

There are some bright spots on the horizon. At a recent cable industry meeting the new president of TCI pledged to reinstate C-SPAN services, possibly yielding to pressure exerted by several grassroots protests. A decision for the cable industry in Turner v. FCC could allow cable systems which eliminated C- SPAN the freedom to bring it back into their lineups. I was reminded while researching this article that the cable industry is a changeable one, where cable channels come and go. C-SPAN and its loyal viewers do not want C-SPAN to be fondly remembered - the commodity C-SPAN offers, unadulterated political access, is too valuable for the American public to lose.