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As of April 1, Rob Kennedy and Susan Swain will begin their tenure atop C-SPAN after 33 years of stewardship by its founder, CEO, board chairman and public face, Brian Lamb.
The new co-CEOs spoke with B&C Washington bureau chief John Eggerton about the future of the cable industrycreated window on Washingtonâ€™s political sausage factory. An edited transcript follows.
This change was anticipated back in 2006, when you were named co-presidents. What signaled that this was the time to make a change?
Rob Kennedy: I think Brian felt like it was the right time. He had been talking with the board about succession planning [the board approved the plan last September] and he chose the timing.
How is the co-CEO relationship going to work?
Kennedy: We have complementary skills. I am more the hardware side and Susan is the software side. Susan mostly focuses on content and marketing and I focus on the infrastructure, the finances and technology. Together we work on strategy. For example, digital strategy we work on together. We have been doing this for 20 years in similar roles. Our offices are right next door to each other. We have developed a very good working relationship over the years. And we have a â€˜no surprises' rule to make sure we include each other on all decisions.
Susan Swain: I don't think our jobs, per se, are changing. Rob and I are great partners. The thing that is going to make this work for us is that the two of us work collaboratively, not competitively. We accept the fact that we have added responsibility and I think we are both very excited about helping to keep C-SPAN around for the industry and the 285 people who work here.
What is changing?
Swain: What's different is that Brian has been the public face of this network for [about] 35 years and he would like to move out of that role. Those are really big shoes for us to fill, but we have both internal and external constituencies who have to learn to turn to us and to speak with authority about the direction of this network. And I think that is the big change.
What is the next direction for C-SPAN?
Kennedy: The main thing is to strive for relevance in an ever-changing media landscape as technologies change. We have to make our content relevant. We have to make sure it is distributed on the platforms where our customers and our viewers are, and make it useful.
But with all the congressional information online and the Hill doing its own streaming of hearings, do you see a time when C-SPAN is no longer needed?
Swain: Our job is to figure out a way to keep it relevant, so if we said yes... First of all, we have a fabulous brand that has been built with the hard work of the people here and the cable industry for the past 33 years, and that brings a lot to the table for customers.
They know what we deliver and that we deliver it with integrity and good quality. We also serve an important aggregator function. People are going to be watching TV for a long time, but we have to continue to reassure them that if they want to know what happened today in Washington they can find it on C-SPAN, if they are looking for coverage of nonfiction books, we're the place, and increasingly, the kind of history coverage you can't get anywhere else on TV is coming from our American History TV. We have to make sure that those brands stay strong.
It is a question of being where people are, but it is also continuing to build out the so-called second screen on-air, the better graphics and better interviews to add context to what we are doing. I think that is a real growth area for us. Not just put things on but help people understand why they are relevant.
Who owns C-SPAN?
Kennedy: We're a nonprofit 501c3 corporation, governed by a board of directors drawn from the cable industry, and our license fee is around 6 cents a month.
Swain: We continue to tell the world that this place was built by private industry and it is our responsibility to keep reinforcing that message. As more and more of our product is available other places, the real public service of the cable industry in paying for this becomes more and more apparent. It is our job to make sure we tell that story.
Is 6 cents enough to do what you need to do?
Kennedy: It funds us to the tune of $60 million a year. The industry has been very good with their support. From our inception through March 19-our 33rd anniversary-the industry has invested about a billion dollars in C-SPAN. Recently, we have converted to HD, so all three of our networks are now fed in HD, and the budget allows us to program those three networks 24/7.
Swain: We are conservative but not parsimonious in our budgeting. We spend our money well and we think we give a good return to the cable industry for the money they've invested in us.
You talked about your three channels, but isn't C-SPAN a lot more than that?
Kennedy: Definitely. We are a radio station in D.C., XM and online. We have a C-SPAN video library archive that contains everything on C-SPAN since 1997.
Swain: [And that has been the] biggest game changer in our business in the past couple of years. This year, the number of people in all parts of the political process accessing the digital library and building profiles and biographies of people who are running for office and issues is just really fun to watch. That has really changed the way people are using C-SPAN.
Can you ever see a time when C-SPAN would be sold?
Kennedy: It can't be sold, really. As a nonprofit we are an educational institution like a college or university. We can't be sold in the way that a for-profit business could be.
Swain: We would have to change our whole governance structure to even contemplate that, and I can't imagine a day when that would happen.
What policy issues in Washington will C-SPAN be active in?
Swain: Cameras in the court we will continue to be active in, and the whole subset of access for the public. This weekend is the Gridiron Dinner. We have an annual tradition to send a letter asking them to let cameras come in. It is ironic since it is journalists who are putting it on. They are as adamant about not [allowing cameras in] as the Supreme Court seems to be. So, I think our job is going to continue to find places where the public ought to be able to see what's going on and to continue to push for camera access.
How about access of C-SPAN to cable systems given the crunch for spectrum. I know you have been active on the must-carry front.
Kennedy: It is always very competitive out there. We have a great track record and great support from the industry. So, we have to look at how that plays out and make sure that our products continue to be relevant and valuable.
We will always be active in areas that effect access to the public or areas that affect our distribution. We have always been in favor of a level playing field in distribution, which is why we are active on the must-carry front.
How can one assess Brian's leadership?
Swain: I don't know where to begin. First of all, he isn't going anywhere. He is going to be around for the next three years-plus. He wants to have a little more time to be able to travel, do interviews from other places and not be burdened with running the place on a day-to-day basis. But, just the way he has approached this transition is a testament to the humble Indiana guy who has built an institution but deflects all of the personal praise. Watching all the tweets over the past few days (see sidebar) and the people who say good things about him, that is genuine. I think people recognize that Brian built this place out of a real desire to do something good for the public with the help of the great business we're all in.
E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter: @eggerton
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