BROOKE GLADSTONE: We're back with On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. C-Span has been cablecasting the U.S. House of Representatives since 1979. Today it operates three channels and airs unedited public events, call-ins, book talks and so forth. Yet, it's not as ubiquitous as it once was, because competition for space on the limited digital bandwidth is tight. Some cable systems that used to provide C-Span as a free public service are now dropping one or all of the C-Span channels in favor of revenue-earning fare, the significance of which depends on your appetite for fly-on-the-wall programming. Here's the Daily Show's Jon Stewart.
JON STEWART: C-Span, [LAUGHTER] for those of you with sex lives, [LAUGHTER] is 24-hour coverage or your government in all its visual splendor. [LAUGHTER] I've actually sucked my hotel mini-bar all the way down to the freon, [LAUGHTER] thanks to 72 hours of this. [C-SPAN CLIP OF VOTE OR QUORUM CALL]
MAN: Mrs. Boxer, Mr. Breaux, Mr. Brownback, [LAUGHTER] Mr. Bunni, Mr. Burns, Mr. Byrd--
BOB GARFIELD: But for its devoted followers, C-Span is more than a fly on the wall. It is a tool of democracy. Paul Miller is a member of Citizens for C-Span.
PAUL MILLER: C-Span enables people to learn about not simply the outcomes of government decisions, but the processes of government at work, to see for themselves how decisions are made, the expressions on the faces of the people making the decisions, and their tones of voice. This ability to see the primary source in action is absolutely essential for people to understand the processes of their government.
BOB GARFIELD: Who are the Citizens for C-Span, and are they armed?
PAUL MILLER: Well, [LAUGHS] we're not armed. Not yet, in any case. We're simply citizens from all over the country who believe very strongly in having access to government in democracy on, on TV. The organization was actually founded in Seattle in 1997, following a decision by the cable company there to cut access to C-Span. The organization started up to very successfully fight that cutback and quickly grew into a national organization that has been helping other communities to fight cutbacks in C-Span.
BOB GARFIELD: Tell me about the 1996 Cable Act. That changed the so-called "must carry rules." Did that affect C-Span's carriage across the country?
PAUL MILLER: Sure. The background of this is that for a long time, the FCC has required cable operators to carry local programmer stations, but with the advent of digital television, the FCC, under the 1996 Cable Act now requires cable companies to carry not only the analog signal on the regular channel from local broadcasters, but also a digital signal. Essentially the end impact for C-Span was that about 9 million viewers lost their access to C-Span when cable operators said that as a result of the requirements of this act, they no longer had space for C-Span.
BOB GARFIELD: Now there are still more than 80 million people who have C-Span on their cable systems. That doesn't necessarily mean that 80 million people are watching. Do you have any idea how many people actually look at this fairly --well I don't think I'm being pejorative here -- bland programming?
PAUL MILLER: Well-- indeed that's one of the, one of the misconceptions we very much like to, to dispel about C-Span, but since C-Span is non-commercial station or, or, or network, it does not participate in Neilsens, but what limited research has been done by Neilsen indicates that about 28 million viewers tune in to C-Span every week, which is a large number of viewers when you compare to, say, 17 million for very popular network series like The West Wing. But I think this is one of the great misconceptions of C-Span, is that C-Span is, is dull or bland, and in fact people who know C-Span well know that because it's a primary source of programming, the C-Span camera truly never blinks, and so C-Span often has been called the "ultimate reality TV." Hang out and pay attention for a little while, and you'll see the most amazing, unpredictable and unexpected things happen.
BOB GARFIELD: I guess that's true, but you can also do that by standing on a street corner. Eventually some car is going to run into a light post.
PAUL MILLER: Amazing things can happen. One episode that got a fair amount of notice recently was this encounter or sort of a showdown between Bill O'Reilly and Al Franken-- [CLIP PLAYS]
AL FRANKEN: No, no, no, no, no, no -- that's not-- [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
BILL O'REILLY: Hey, shut up! You had your 35 minutes. Shut - Up. [SMATTERING OF APPLAUSE]
AL FRANKEN: This isn't your show, Bill. [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
BILL O'REILLY: This is what this guy does. This is what he does. [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
AL FRANKEN: Bill you can't - you can't tell-
BILL O'REILLY: All right? This is what he does. [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
AL FRANKEN: Take control, Pat. Come on! [LAUGHTER]
PAT: I think, wait a minute -- I think I need a whistle and a striped shirt. [SEVERAL SPEAK AT ONCE]
PAUL MILLER: President Reagan, during this presidency, on occasion called in and, just on the viewer call in line, to express some opinions about some things he had seen going on, on C-Span. Last week the entertainer Cher called in, and-
BOB GARFIELD: I just can't even imagine how that must have sounded. [CLIP PLAYS]
CHER: But in some cases, these boys had lost one leg, and the other leg was so damaged that they weren't sure what they were going to be able to do.
C-SPAN INTERVIEWER: Where did you spend the day?
CHER: Walter Reed.
C-SPAN INTERVIEWER: What were you doing at Walter Reed? Are you a volunteer or--?
CHER: I'm an entertainer.
C-SPAN INTERVIEWER: Oh, what kind of entertaining? Are you USO?
CHER:No, I, I actually was called by the USO, but I'm, I'm just - I'm an entertainer. I, I really -- I don't want to go much past that. But-
C-SPAN INTERVIEWER: Is this Cher?
C-SPAN INTERVIEWER: Okay.
BOB GARFIELD: Tell me about what success you've had so far in getting C-Span back on cable systems where it was an endangered species.
PAUL MILLER: Around the country, over the past several years, from Freeport, Maine to, to Santa Rosa, to Texas, to all over the place, a number of different communities have had great success in using essentially the model we recommend which is to be very persistent in calling and organizing people to call their cable companies, lobby their public officials, and insist on the basic principle that public affairs programming is an essential public good.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, Paul, you're very kind to join us. Thank you very much.
PAUL MILLER: Well thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Paul Miller, a marketing consultant from San Mateo, California is the spokesman for Citizens for C-Span. [MUSIC TAG]