Lamb: Staying On, But Leaving Helm in Good Hands

RELATED: New C-SPAN Leaders Move Mission Forward

Founding CEO Brian Lamb is stepping down from day-to-day operations at C-SPAN, the public affairs network he helped build into a national institution. He will remain executive chairman of the board and continue his weekly interview show, Q&A, but the channel is "somebody else's baby" now, he says. Lamb talked to B&C last week about how that "baby" was born, and how it has been cared for by the cable industry.

Why did you start C-SPAN?
I got involved in this because I felt very strongly, coming out of the Midwest, that we weren't getting enough information. I had been in the Navy and I came to Washington and I was at the Pentagon for two years watching the Vietnam War information battle and getting to know how the networks operated and it was just an instinct. I kept saying to myself it's got to be better than this, 30 minutes a night on these three networks and they all did basically the same thing and thought the same way.

I went to Capitol Hill and worked a couple of years and ended up down in the Office of Telecommunications Policy and these were geniuses and they really understood policy and they wanted to change it, not because they wanted to take anything away but they wanted to add. That was what taught me how [C-SPAN] would eventually evolve.

My motivation wasn't Congress in particular, but providing substantially new information based on my own experience [in Washington]. I would go back to Indiana and tell my friends what I had seen, and they couldn't see it because they weren't living here, and they were interested in politics.

Bob Johnson saw a need and became a billionaire with BET. Michael Bloomberg saw a news need and made a billion, too. Seems like you came up with this great idea and essentially donated it to the country.
It has been a fascinating thing, learning about how money works in business. But the money thing was never on my radar. Some of the business people will tell you, ‘He did not know the first thing about money.' They taught me, and I mean [cable exec] Bob Rosencrans, all the basics. I made the presentation to 40 cable operators, and [Rosencrans] was the only guy in the room who came up and said, ‘I like your idea and I would like to support it.' After things started to take off and he gave me a $25,000 check, I said ‘now what?' He said: ‘You have to write a business plan.' And I didn't have a clue what a business plan was. So he said, ‘You come to Connecticut where I live and I'll spend a day with you and teach you how to write a business plan,' and that's what happened.

Making money was just never a mission of mine. I'm comfortably paid but it is just not the reason I got into this.

Why did you set up this sort of bi-cameral succession with Rob Kennedy and Susan Swain as co-presidents and now co-CEOs?
It really evolved. There was a time when we had a five-person executive management committee and everybody that worked here started right out of college. They all began to show their talents over time. Rob has an extraordinary talent when it comes to managing money. In the 25 years he has been here we have never had a bad report from our auditors about anything. Susan was hired in 1982 for $15,000 a year as a producer. She just constantly demonstrated leadership ability and understanding of our mission.

And out of that executive management committee, I decided the two of them, who were eventually executive vice presidents and co-chief operating officers, made sense. I talked to the board about the transition. They made great presentations to the board. There was no magic to it, except they have the talent to work together. They don't show any ego in this game, and that is extraordinary. It often doesn't work, but I think the reason that it might work here is that there is no profit, and profit leads to needing one person to make the decisions and somebody you either congratulate and give that huge bonus to or blame and fire, and here it is really the mission: whether or not at the end of the year we have met our budget, haven't spent more than we were able to generate, and stayed on mission.

What are you proudest of about C-SPAN?
I don't think in those terms. I've never taken the time to put my feet up and say: ‘Isn't this great?' I actually am most proud of the fact that this transition worked and that I am able to walk away and still have an organization that is on mission 35 years later. We are doing the same thing we set out to do.

If this industry hadn't stuck by us over the years, we wouldn't be here. And if you look around, almost no network is doing the same thing today as it was in the beginning. There are many stories like the Nashville Network that went to Spike TV or Court TV that went to Spike TV. We're still on mission.

You talked about walking away, but aren't you sticking around for at least three more years?
I'm gonna stick around, but I am definitely out of the day-to-day decision-making. I will be involved in what we are euphemistically calling strategic planning. But, it is their baby. I love representing the channel and talking about it. I love proselytizing and I am a bit jealous about it, and that will never go away. But they have the responsibility to look to the future and find their successors.

Speaking of issues you are passionate about, C-SPAN continues to push for cameras in Supreme Court oral arguments. Why?
There are some simple reasons. They have absolutely nothing to lose by doing it and they have everything to gain by letting the public see how that process works. Unlike any other institution, they are in control. They don't vote their emotions. The Chief Justice can control any advocate who stands up in front of the court if they begin to grandstand.

It is a marvelous institution. I know that people give reasons and wring their hands about it and all that stuff. But keep in mind that oral argument is usually only an hour, with most of what is important having been laid down in the briefs. Then they go behind closed doors, which we're not asking to cover, and make the decision, and then write the opinions behind closed doors, as they should. The oral argument is important, but it does let the public know that there is no jury in the room and that these are terrifically qualified people to sit there up on the dais.

Do you support the current legislation that would mandate coverage, with the judges allowed to decide on a case-by-case basis?
We have stayed out of supporting a bill. Yes, it would be nice if the Congress passed a bill, but my guess is it would be unconstitutional based on the fact that you have three equal branches of government and the court very much sets its own rules. I think the court has to do it on its own and realize that the education value is significant. And until they do, they are going to keep saying no. And they will stand firm because there are several members of the court who are adamantly opposed to television and, frankly, they don't know much about television. It is always an awkward discussion.

They were very good to us, let us in to show the whole court inside and out, talk to all living Justices, first time that ever happened in history, did a documentary on the place [the Supreme Court: Home to America's Highest Court]. That part of it I can't complain. They just don't want to do this [televising oral argument]. I have to give Chief Justice [Roberts] credit. He has brought us a long way. Chief Justice Bill Rehnquist did it first when he allowed same-day coverage of audio portions of this. I think what they might do eventually is allow same-day audio coverage-it is now on an ad hoc basis. I don't quite understand why they want to do it that way. It would also work if they wanted to release a video at the end of the week. We are a society that loves its day-to-day exciting reaction to things, but this is historic. It is a process that takes time, and I think that is part of what the public should get a better glimpse of.

Are you concerned about the divisive tone of political discourse, or does that just make for a more exciting C-SPAN?
I'm not one that is concerned. I don't like some of the things that people are saying in this society about one another, but it's the definition of freedom. It's hard. People wring their hands and say, We've got to stop this or stop that. My reaction to it is, if you don't like it, don't watch it. If you don't like the talk shows on radio, don't listen to them. I know a ton of people who don't. Most of what you see on our network is not uncivil. Politics is a very serious business and most people don't realize there is a lot at stake. They don't think about it in that way. They think their side should win all the time. The reason why we are divided as a country is because we are divided as a country.

I remember back during Lyndon Johnson where there was a great imbalance and the country was not nearly as divided because the Democrats controlled everything and they controlled it with a large majority of the vote. Part of the bitterness that you see today from the Republican side was the fact that they were kept out of it for 40 years and that is just a natural backlash. I don't think it is anything to worry about.

What will you be doing at C-SPAN?
We're doing research now on the history of this place and trying to figure out whether there is either a book or Website to set up and leave a little bit of a legacy and how things happened. I will do this one-hour interview show every week and I do put a tremendous amount of research in it so that at least I know something about what the guest is talking about so I can get the best interview.

I am still chairman of board and on the executive committee and responsible for broad outlines of what this place is doing. The nice thing about my three-year agreement is that I don't have to be here every day. And I am not looking for vacations, but I have only been married for six and a half years-first time-we haven't gone anywhere and done anything of any great nature and it is time to spend more time with friends and do some traveling. It is a pretty nice arrangement. I'm in great shape, and have the same energy I had when this place started.

I have been around longer than anyone in the business. There isn't anyone still running a company that started back in the ‘70s. Since money was not the objective, I didn't look at any point to sell out. I think that was part of signaling to everybody in our business that we were serious about this, that it was not a place to build and flip.

Anything we did not cover that you would like to talk about?
The only thing that is very important to me is the people in the industry who started this place and stuck with it over the years, and there are some of them still on the board, Amos Hostetter, John Evans, Bob Miron, and a lot of the newcomers-I can't tell you how important they were. And the media-not the trade media-misses that story. If the collective group had not supported this from the beginning and continued to support it through 35 years, we wouldn't be here. This whole world is pegged toward the bottom line, and this place has never made a dime for anybody. The industry has spent a billion dollars in these 35 years for a product that is nothing but public service.

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.