C-SPANNING the Years

March 19 marks the 40th anniversary of C-SPAN's debut, which was with live coverage of the House of Representatives, to which was eventually added coverage of the Senate (C-SPAN 2 in 1986), then coverage of important hearings (C-SPAN 3 in 2001) and press conferences and seminars and speeches and original programming, to which was added new TV channels, and radio (1997), and digital platforms, and a road show of public affairs education via the C-SPAN Bus, to which... Well, you get the idea.

Many people probably think of C-SPAN as a government-run or -funded entity. It is, instead, a public service of the cable industry, launched by Brian Lamb, a reporter, those folks now branded by the current head of the government as an enemy of the people. Of course, Lamb and his successors are the opposite, allowing the people to see how some of that legislative sausage is made.

Lamb reminded viewers this week that there has never been any federal money in the network, "and never will be."


Boomers and their parents provided a sense of the potential audience, if not commercial market, for live coverage of government during the Watergate Hearings, which were covered wall-to-wall on noncommercial TV.

C-SPAN continues to try and open up more of the government, pushing for coverage of appeals courts and the Supreme Court to put the digital public in "public trials."

B&C, which covered the channel's launch, also had a bit of a hand in its history.

The public affairs channel's first call-in show aired in 1980, featuring a panel of media journalists assembled by Lamb following a speech by then FCC chairman Charlie Ferris at the National Press Club, which later billed the cablecast (as we called it in those days) as the "first national regularly scheduled call-in show" and installed a framed photo of that first talk show panel outside the studio. 

The panel included Broadcasting & Cable (then Broadcasting) magazine managing editor Don West and Lamb as well as Michael Kelley of George Mason University and board member of Corporation for Public Broadcasting; Pat Gushman, Washington bureau chief, CableVision Magazine; and Tack Nail, executive editor, Television Digest.


The first call was from a Yankton, S.D., man who wanted to know whether he could build a dish in the back yard and grab the programming off a satellite (this was before DBS).

Here are some more highlights, courtesy of C-SPAN:

  • "May 1981: Americans see a Democratic controlled House vote for the Reagan budget, which cut the growth of Federal spending.
  • "January 1991: For the first time Americans can see Congress debate going to war, in the Persian Gulf.
  • "January 1995: The nation watches the House change political leadership for the first time in 40 years, from Democratic to Republican rule under Newt Gingrich.
  • "December 1998: For the first time Americans watch the House debate and vote to impeach a president, Bill Clinton.
  • "January: 2001: Al Gore presides over the House counting electoral votes following the Florida recount.
  • "January 2007: Americans see the first woman, Nancy Pelosi, become House Speaker.
  • "November 2009: The House debates and passes President Barack Obama's Affordable Health care act."
John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.