Award honors C-SPAN founder

Jack Marsh, executive director of the Freedom Forum on the University of South Dakota campus, USA Today founder Al Neuharth, and C-SPAN founder Brian Lamb discuss national media trends with the audience in Slagle Auditorium Thursday night, Oct. 6. (Photo by David Lias)

For C-SPAN founder and host Brian Lamb, Yankton represents more than the hometown of former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw.

Lamb spoke Thursday afternoon at a press conference on the University of South Dakota campus. The press conference was held in conjunction with his selection as the 2011 Al Neuharth Award for Excellence in the Media.

During a separate interview with the Press & Dakotan, Lamb noted that Yankton will forever remain a part of C-SPAN history.

"My first caller to our line came Oct. 7, 1980, and it came from Yankton, South Dakota," Lamb said.

Lamb, who turned 70 last Sunday, listed the call as one of his five favorite moments from the network's first quarter-century on cable television. He vividly remembered details about the call, even though it occurred more than three decades ago.

"I believe it was an older male, a gentleman named Bob," he said. "His call was about the communications industry."

And for those who doubt Lamb's memory, a check of C-SPAN's website shows a man identified as Bob Joffra from Yankton went into the archives as C-SPAN's very first caller on the opening live call-in show.

The panelists on that first call-in show were amazed at the callers' depth of knowledge and interest in telecommunications, Lamb wrote on his website.

"That's when we knew that people were interested in more than just the first paragraph of a story," he added.

From that first Yankton caller, the network has grown dramatically in its reach and impact.

C-SPAN – the acronym for Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network – operates as a not-for-profit company entirely funded by the cable television industry.

On March 19, 1979, C-SPAN was made available to 3.5 million households around the nation. Broadcasting the first televised session of the U.S. House of Representatives, the network ushered in a new era of journalism and a new understanding of objectivity.

C-SPAN had a staff of four at the time of the inaugural 1979 broadcast. Today, C-SPAN offers round-the-clock public affairs broadcasting. The largest of the company's three TV channels reaches 90 million homes, and Lamb presides over 255 employees and a $50 million budget.

During Thursday's interview with the Yankton Press & Dakotan, Lamb spoke about the network's continuing battles for accessibility to public officials. He was informed of South Dakota's battles with First Amendment issues, and he said the media and public need to continue acting as watchdogs.

"It's a fight that needs to go on," he said. "It's (the taxpayers') dollars that are spent, and you have to stay on it. You need to take the time and give it the attention that it needs."

Lamb finds it's not a matter of citizens lacking interest in their government. Rather, they are overwhelmed with the many concerns in their daily lives and don't usually have the time and means to unearth information.

That's where the media plays a vital role, he said.

Citizens also feel cynicism about politics, Lamb said. "There is a great deal of frustration with government and how it is operating," he said.

During the interview, Lamb was asked about the growing trend of "narrowcasting," where people seek out the media or opinions that reflect their own viewpoint.

Lamb sees it as part of a shift in public tastes, with cable networks trying to include various parts of the spectrum. "People like having the choice. Over time, it will even out," he said.

During Thursday's press conference, Lamb answered a number of questions from journalists, including USD students:

  • He credited the USD students for their preparation and line of questioning. "You looked at the future, not the past," he said.

The hardest part of interviewing people is getting them to open up, he said. "When they do, that's when I start learning," he said.

C-SPAN sponsored a "Student Cam" competition with 1,093 entries, he said. "That's not a lot for the entire nation, but to have students decide to make a documentary in this day and age is fantastic."

  • As a not-for-profit network, C-SPAN doesn't have the financial pressures felt by for-profit and commercial media, he said.

"If you went into our operation, it would be a whole different atmosphere than USA Today," he said.

However, that doesn't C-SPAN can relax its standards or offerings, Lamb said. The network must offer more, not less, and cannot afford to fall behind on social media, he said.

In a cost-conscious environment, C-SPAN remains the least expensive of all the channels, Lamb said. However, fewer customers subscribed to cable this year, he said.

"We have to stay lean and mean," he predicted.

USA Today founder Al Neuharth, a USD graduate and the award's namesake, sat at the head table with Lamb and agreed on the pressures facing today's media.

"There is more hunger on the part of the public for information and advertising, more than at any time wherever you go in the world," he said. "But they are more selective about when, where and how they want (their information)."

Today's graduates must possess a number of skills in a highly competitive job market, Neuharth said.

"If you recognize that hunger (for information) and how to achieve (satisfying) that hunger, then your future is bright," he told the USD students.

  • Even with its credibility and impact, C-SPAN still finds itself denied access in certain areas, including the U.S. Supreme Court, Lamb said.

"They allowed us in to do a documentary (about the high court). We interviewed 11 of the living justices, the nine on the court and two who are retired," he said. "But they won't let us in to see the process. It's one large institution, and it won't let us in."

Neuharth encouraged C-SPAN to continue its fight for Supreme Court access.

"It's one of the big remaining barriers," he said. "Get cameras in the U.S. Supreme Court, and it will be the climax to what you (Lamb) have done."

  • By and large, public events are open to C-SPAN, Lamb said. However, Congress continues to enforce strict rules about access, with many decisions made behind closed doors, he said.

"Elected officials want to control access," he said. "They bring lots of cameras to hearings and put it on the Web so it's what they want you to see. They control very tightly the environment people can see."

  • In separate remarks, Lamb noted that presidential campaigns now spend $1 billion to control the message. C-SPAN doesn't have audience ratings, unlike commercial television.

"We are not in competition with anyone else," he said. "We are in a different league. We are unlike anywhere else."

Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>