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Don't Squeeze C-Span

WE'D be among the first to concede that watching US Rep. Phineas Somnolence soliloquize during hearings on arcane subjects lacks the rapid-fire dazzle of MTV or the drama of ``NYPD Blue.'' The same can't be said, however, for the hearings surrounding Clarence Thomas's nomination to the US Supreme Court or for those dealing with Sen. Robert Packwood (R) of Oregon.

News that major cable companies are curtailing and, in some cases, dropping C-Span - the service that brings 24-hour coverage of Congress and other political matters in Washington - is troubling.

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To be sure, the sky is not falling. C-Span 1, which covers the US House of Representatives, reaches some 60 million households; C-Span 2, the Senate counterpart, reaches roughly 34 million households. Plans are afoot for a third C-Span channel. Yet as cable competition tightens, it is telling that public-service channels are among the first to be squeezed.

All of the key players benefit from C-Span's availability. For citizens, the channels represent one of the least-filtered windows on their national government - a reality check on sound-bite politics and sound-bite journalism. For politicians, C-Span is the nearest electronic equivalent to the franking privilege, free access to voters. And for the cable companies, which underwrite C-Span's cost and whose executives sit on its board of directors, the effort helps them look good when they must testify before congressional committees on matters affecting their industry.

Some relief may come from the US Supreme Court, which could rule as early as today on ``must carry/retransmission'' cable rules. These rules have prompted - some would say forced - companies to trim C-Span. In many cases, C-Span is losing its slot to the FX Channel, part of a package that allowed cable companies to retransmit the Fox network's programming as part of their basic service.

Yet the most effective tool to maintain C-Span's full presence remains public pressure. In Eugene, Ore., for example, Tele-Communications Inc. wanted to carry C-Span only during the day. After viewers complained, TCI dropped a pay-per-view channel instead. TCI's local general manager noted that it was less the number of people and more ``the quality of their arguments'' that accounted for the shift. The quality of those arguments must be more universally recognized and acted upon.

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