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Sizing Up Cable’s Crown Jewel

C-SPAN Networks VP Peter Kiley is a 20-year veteran of both C-SPAN and CTAM, including several years helping plan the latter’s annual conference. He oversees C-SPAN's marketing team and the effort to get his affiliates credit for the good work they do.

Heading into this week's CTAM conference in Orlando, Fla., Kiley spoke with B&C Washington bureau chief John Eggerton about the challenges of promoting the public service channel, what C-SPAN considers its “Olympics†and the value of 6,000 Twinkies. An edited transcript follows.

Give us your company bio -- and how you fit into the C-Span structure.
I've spent more than 25 years at C-SPAN, most of that doing affiliate relations work focusing on our relationships with distributors, carriage, billing, contracts and legal issues.

Much of the value proposition that C-SPAN has with its affiliate base is doing good things in the community with them and helping our affi liates get credit for providing the public service that C-SPAN is. I spend a good deal of our time working with our marketing team—Marty Dominguez is VP of marketing and does all the legwork—our communications group and our community outreach group to get the message out that C-SPAN is not a government channel, that it has never gotten a dime of government money, and that we're funded by affiliate fees paid by our distributors, including satellite distributors and telephone companies.

Because we are a nonprofit, and because we keep those affiliate fees very low, we are not in a position to market ourselves in the traditional ways you see other programming networks do.

Which brings us to the CTAM Mark Award nomination-- for excellence in marketing--which C-SPAN received for the New Hampshire primary campaign.
I think for us, each campaign cycle, particularly a presidential election cycle, is a huge opportunity.

We refer to the couple of weeks of the conventions as our Olympics. But we begin our coverage of the campaigns and start our focus on them much sooner than most of the other news networks. As politicians begin visiting Iowa, New Hampshire and other primary and caucus states, we start covering those dinners. We know from a history of doing this since the 1980s that there is a very politically active community in each of those areas. For this election cycle, we decided to hyper-target Iowa and New Hampshire during the early campaign season. We did many of the same things in Tampa and Charlotte [site of the Republican and Democratic conventions, respectively], and we're doing some similar things on a little different scale in [swing states] Virginia and Ohio.

What we did in New Hampshire was to go into the state and say that we were going to show New Hampshire's motivated people, our audience, as well as the politicos in the state, the organizers and even candidates themselves, and the professional media traveling to New Hampshire that C-SPAN is the place for 2012 coverage.

We bought billboards in key locations--always on the way into town from an airport and a key spot in the downtown area. We put ‘C-SPAN Campaign 2012' logos and channel numbers on key cards in hotels where we knew campaign officials and the media would be staying. We took the C-SPAN bus to New Hampshire and had it at events where candidates were, the offices they were opening in the state, as well as schools and universities and to the Red Arrow Diner and other places where we knew political conversations were taking place.

In the Red Arrow Diner, we put our logo on coffee mugs, placemats and certain foods.

And among those “certain foods†were, I believe, 5,000 Whoopie Pies and 6,000 Twinkies?

Are you sure those are the best food choices? Michelle Obama might not approve.
I think those were the choices of Red Arrow Diner of what were good sellers.

Another new thing we did is develop an interactive kiosk for visitors to the C-SPAN bus--not so much to show all our resources, but to help users learn more about candidates and the process, and ultimately the resources. We have continued to update that through the convention and into the debates. We think it really engages the audience, particularly students.

How important is it to get the message out that this public interest jewel is brought to you by those big cable companies that elsewhere sometimes get hammered for rates or service or their size? How do you make that point to viewers?
We have a tremendous challenge helping our audience understand what kind of public service we are and, most importantly, helping them understand that we are not a government channel, but instead a public service of your television provider.

You will see on each of these premium items we were giving away at these campaign locations, or the kiosk, or the websites: "Created by cable offered as a public service of your television provider."

We are expanding that now and trying to more clearly define what that means. One of the ways we are doing that is, if you go to our website, you will see the logos of all the major distributors of our content, our largest companies and board-member companies. We are also running 30-second spots on C-SPAN that tell the story that C-SPAN is a public service of your providers, with scrolling logos. We are also doing pre-rolls on on-demand video on our website so that if you go and watch any of this campaign content, you will see one or a number of pre-rolls, some only 2 or 3 seconds saying, "service of your television provider," and some a longer messages-we are playing with the format-about the role that your provider plays in offering C-SPAN, again showing logos in the background.

It is a challenge to convey what "service of your distributor" means, because, what does that really mean to people? But we think it is important because, a) we want distributors who fund us to get credit for the good things that they do, and, b) also it is critical that people understand that we are not a government channel because that gives us more integrity and a different trust level by making it clear we are a separate, journalistic organization making the decisions every day about which hearings get covered, which candidates get on at what time, the camera angles.

To know it is a private company doing that is important. Clearly, it is important for a private company that does that to give credit to those who make it possible. We work very hard to do that with the limited resources we have.

A Weather Channel executive once said that their perfect programming scenario was a storm that threatened devastation on the East Coast for a day or two, then did not come ashore and cost lives and property. Do you guys hope for an impeachment or at least high partisan drama to boost viewership?
I don't think we are hoping for impeachment. We don't take any ratings and I don't think we ever will be Nielsen-rated. As soon as you become a rated network, it is difficult to provide the kind of public service we have. Programming decisions will be impacted. We do take a quadrennial survey of what people are watching and what they value and how they watch, so we get a lot of real-time feedback. Through Facebook and Twitter accounts and blogs, we get a lot of feedback. It is clear that something like the healthcare debate in Congress or the Supreme Court decision on healthcare certainly drive a higher interest, as does the election cycle. People want to tune in to see what is happening, then go to other news organizations or websites to get perspective.

What we hear a lot from our viewers about C-SPAN is they get to watch it for themselves. So, when there is a high-interest event more people are going to come and watch it. I don't think we are rooting for those things necessarily. We try to be prepared for them and provide the best complimentary background material on those events as best we can.

Why do you go to CTAM and what is the value of the show for you?
I always learn something at CTAM, particularly from the outside-the-industry speakers. I often find some of those the most interesting. And I go for the networking. With fewer and fewer events on the annual calendar where the industry gathers, I really value the opportunity for the hallway conversation, the cup of coffee in the morning to see people that I normally wouldn't in my regular visits to our distributors. I find a lot of value in the industry gathering at these kinds of events because of the networking opportunities.

E-mail comments to and follow him on Twitter: @eggerton