Carol M. Morrissey has been the
Legislative Specialist for the Washington, D. C. office of
Sidley & Austin for 11 years. She is a lawyer and
expert who has also authored a Congressional update column for
last 4 years.
(Archived April 21, 1997)
s 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.
etween 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
ne 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.
he 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
nother 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.
ou 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.
n 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).
he 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
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.
here 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.