Washington • It’s not usually the channel you turn to for reality TV.
But, minute by minute, it is the most reality you can find with your remote.
For nearly 40 years, C-SPAN has aired live gavel-to-gavel coverage of Congress and documented everything from mundane hearings to many of the most historic moments in U.S. history.
For generations, journalists brought home the news from Washington. The column inches and TV clips were all you knew.
C-SPAN, from its humble beginnings in 1979, brought congressional debates and other public affairs programming raw and unfiltered to your living room.
As C-SPAN’s bus, making its way to all 50 U.S capitals, winds its way to Salt Lake City on Thursday and Friday, here’s a rundown of things you might not know about the network:
• C-SPAN isn’t government funded: The channel and its spinoffs are paid for by a small fee of 6 cents per month on cable and satellite packages, a point punctuated by its slogan: “Created by Cable.” C-SPAN is a nonprofit that operates independent of government control and cable-satellite companies.
• Who came first? Then-Rep. Al Gore was the first member of Congress to speak on C-SPAN as he gave a speech on the House floor March 19, 1979. “Television will change this institution, Mr. Speaker, just as it has changed the executive branch, but the good will far outweigh the bad,” the future vice president said then. Later, as a U.S. senator, Gore also spoke during the first coverage of a Senate session by C-SPAN.
• It’s an acronym: This is one that will help you at that next trivia game: C-SPAN is actually short for Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network.
C-SPAN bus schedule<br>Thursday<br>9-11 a.m., Salt Lake Community College South City Campus, 1575 State St.<br>1-3 p.m., City Hall, 451 S. State St.<br>Friday<br>7:30-8 a.m., interview with Gov. Gary Herbert, Utah Capitol.<br>9-10 a.m., open bus tours, Capitol.
• First call-in? C-SPAN’s first call-in show, which later became the morning “Washington Journal” program, was hosted at the National Press Club and the first caller was Bob from Yankton, S.D. He wanted to know if he could build his own satellite dish.
• About those callers: “Washington Journal” takes calls on the Republican, Democrat or independent phone lines, but sometimes the callers are more in the wacky category. For a time, prank callers tried to talk about a certain body part of shock jock host Howard Stern, and when political consultants Brad and Dallas Woodhouse appeared on the program, their mom, Joy, phoned in. “Oh, God, it’s Mom,” Dallas Woodhouse remarked.
The best prank may have come from Jack, who phoned from California but noted he was originally from west Philadelphia.
“I was actually discussing this issue with a friend of mine when I was in Philly; it occurred on a basketball court,” he said. “At some point during the conversation, a couple of guys who were up to no good essentially started causing trouble in my neighborhood. I got in one little fight and my mom got scared, and said, ‘You’re moving in with your auntie and uncle in Bel-Air.’”
Host Pedro Echevarria, recognizing the spoof of the “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” theme song, smiled and then cut off the caller.
• It’s more popular than you think: A 2017 survey showed that 70 million adults tuned in to C-SPAN content within the past six months, and 9.5 million reported doing so several times a week. The audience is politically split, with 28 percent describing themselves as liberal, 27 percent as conservative and 36 percent as moderate. President Donald Trump still prefers “Fox & Friends.”
• But, wait, there’s more: Beyond C-SPAN, which shows coverage of the House, there are C-SPAN2, which covers the Senate, and C-SPAN3, which shows a variety of public affairs programming. On the weekends, C-SPAN2 becomes Book TV and C-SPAN3 showcases American History TV (which, by the way, featured Salt Lake City in 2014). There’s also a radio station that can be heard in the Washington region as well as on C-SPAN’s free phone app, and its website has 238,000 hours of searchable video available. There are no plans for a C-SPAN Ocho.
• Nationwide tour: C-SPAN’s bus began traversing the United States in 1993 and this year, the 25th anniversary of that, the coach is hitting all 50 state capitals, including Juneau, Alaska, and Honolulu (yes, they ship the bus by boat to both). The bus includes 11 large-screen tablets featuring C-SPAN programming and other educational resources. It also has a Washington-themed selfie station to put you in the heart of the action.
• He’s not only the founder: Brian Lamb, who came up with the C-SPAN idea, still heads the board, hosts a weekly Q&A program and reports to the office daily. In fact, C-SPAN says 28 percent of its workforce has been with the network more than 20 years.
• What you’re not seeing: If you turn to C-SPAN or C-SPAN2, you’re likely to see a House member or senator speaking on the floor, but you may not realize there are only a handful of people in the chamber. C-SPAN airs the footage from the House and Senate, but Congress controls the cameras. So, generally, while C-SPAN shows the entire chamber during votes, when members of Congress aren’t casting ballots, the network can’t show the empty room. It might bruise some congressional egos.
Editor’s note • The author has appeared on C-SPAN 44 times but never with an errant-baseball-induced black eye as his colleague Robert Gehrke sported in 2002.