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C-SPAN Will Gavel In More History

It took a worldwide pandemic, but the U.S. Supreme Court is finally allowing live streaming of oral arguments. It is audio, not video, but still progress, the kind of progress that C-SPAN has been pushing for over three decades.

Bruce Collins

Bruce Collins

The suite of public-affairs networks funded by the cable industry will carry the live audio on its TV, audio and digital platforms — that would be C-SPAN, C-SPAN Radio, the C-SPAN Radio App and c-span.org — beginning Monday (May 4).

Appropriately, one of the first-day arguments, U.S. Patent & Trademark Office v. Booking.com, will be one involving the internet: the effort by the online travel site to trademark its website.

That will be one of 10 arguments C-SPAN will be covering this month.

Multichannel News talked to C-SPAN corporate VP and general counsel Bruce Collins about the historic live coverage, which for C-SPAN and Collins, who joined the operation in 1981, has been more than three decades in the making. Here’s an edited transcript.

MCN: How is the court making the live audio available to the public?

Bruce Collins: C-SPAN is one of three news media entities that have a direct feed from the court.

MCN: Who are the other two?

BC: The network pool, currently being run by Fox, and the AP. Frankly, I don’t think they [the Supreme Court is] putting it on their website because they couldn’t handle the traffic. That is why the court called us to see how we were going to distribute it. They were interested in maximum distribution because the network pool is only for the TV people and subscribers — the people who pay.

We told them we would be happy to be a direct link because we would distribute it nationwide and free, and beyond cable television subscribers because we are putting it on our cspan.org website and our free C-SPAN Radio app for download. So, anyone with a cellphone and the app is going to be able to listen to these live.

MCN: Can other news organizations not part of the pool feed just access your link and use it?

BC: I suppose they could because it is basically just public domain information. It’s not like we could stop them.

MCN: How are you going to handle the audio, graphically, on TV?

BC: We have been covering oral arguments starting with Bush v. Gore in 2000, the first time that the court released an audio recording, in this case a couple of hours afterwards.

We did then what we have done many times subsequently, which is to get the pictures of the justices and the pictures of the lawyers and run them whenever they are speaking. Usually just by close listening you can tell who is speaking. Then we use a few explanatory graphics along the way.

MCN: It is audio only, rather than video. Why do you think the court didn’t go ‘full monty,’ as it were, and show themselves?

BC: The answer, of course, is we don’t know. The objections to television go back a long way, as you know. When nominees to the court are asked about televising the court, often in a question prompted by C-SPAN, some of them will say they are not averse to it. Some have had experience with it in the lower federal courts or in state courts and, suddenly, they get on the court and they become silent. You never hear about it again.

MCN: You said the court called C-SPAN. Was that in response to a pitch from you for live audio or video during the current pandemic, given that the court signaled it would do teleconference arguments?

BC: Historically, at least since 1988, we would join with other media organizations to request TV coverage of arguments and it became clear TV wasn’t going to happen. So then we started asking, if not an argument, how about a ceremony, like the investiture of a new justice? And the answer was, ‘No TV, no TV, no TV.’

So in 2000, and we knew audio was available because at the end of every term they send the audio to the National Archives, we had asked for live TV and the breakthrough was the answer: ‘No TV, but we will release the audio two hours after the completion of the [Bush v. Gore] argument.’ Since then, we have asked for either same-day or live audio.

So we didn’t ask them for live TV coverage during the pandemic. We didn’t ask them for anything. We had been turned down so often and C-SPAN and the other media groups had portioned out our requests so we didn’t become a pest. We reserved our requests for same-day or live audio for high-profile cases.

MCN: Do you think they will try to put this genie back in the bottle?

BC: They easily could. The reason they went with live audio, or at least a reasonable explanation, is that the court is required to be open to the public. But under the pandemic, they couldn’t let the public in and they couldn’t let the press in. For the court to be public, they had to release the audio, and they couldn’t very easily release it to only news organizations and say ‘don’t use it live.’

I can see how, come fall, if this is over, they say, ‘We’re not in a pandemic situation. We’ll revert to being a public court, but we don’t need to go live.’

MCN: And if they do that, will C-SPAN be back knocking on the door?

BC: Yes, but we will reserve our requests for cases we believe to be of high public interest.