TCS Daily


Brian Lamb May Not Use the Internet, but C-SPAN Sure Does

By James K. Glassman - February 19, 2001 12:00 AM

Lamb May Not Use the Internet, but
C-SPAN Sure Does


The Internet and cable consolidation doesn't threaten
C-SPAN, the public-affairs cable channels' founder Brian Lamb tells TechCentralStation host James Glassman. But must-carry rules for over-the-air broadcasters and their grip on the broadcast spectrum may. "We're not moneymaking for anybody," he says, "and if they're looking for space, we're an obvious candidate." In the meantime, C-SPAN is now available over the Internet and has a new channel for cable's digital tier. And, Lamb says, C-SPAN's local radio will soon be ready for national satellite delivery later this year.


Jim Glassman: Before you started C-SPAN back in 1979, you were involved in telecommunication issues in the Nixon administration. What were you doing then and what were the issues?

Brian Lamb:I was the Assistant to the Director of the Office of Telecommunications Policy in the White House between '71 and '74. The big issues were: How do we get competition in the communication system, starting with everything from over-the-air broadcasting to cable television, satellite broadcasting, public television. How do we get more stations, more diversity, more choice?

Glassman: That sounds familiar.

Lamb: It does. It is always about what America wants. America always wants more.

Glassman: Speaking of which, have you been following the current debate over broadband, the fact that it has not really spread as quickly as lot of Americans or politicians had expected from the Telecommunication Act of 1996? I'm talking more about Internet connections.

Lamb: Yes, we follow it because there's always a possibility of direct competition to cable television, and we also have a substantial presence on the Internet. I really don't have any views on the Telecom Act. I have not paid attention to the specifics as much as I used to. I do know, from our standpoint, we still continue to argue rather strongly that the must-carry provisions for cable of local broadcast stations in the Cable Act of 1992 were unconstitutional and favor one industry - over-the-air television. It is not warranted in my opinion. The Congress has given them everything they ever wanted with absolutely nothing in return. It baffles me. I suppose I should not be so naive as to realize that it is usually a member of Congress worrying about whether they are going to get exposure in a local community.

Glassman: The must-carry provisions require cable companies to run local over-the-air broadcast on their systems, right?

Lamb: The local cable operator must carry any television station if it is in the station's "Designated Market Area" (as determined by Nielson Media). It is an arbitrary situation. A French broadcaster who might be out in Manassas with a religious station, which they then sell time to a shopping channel, and then the local cable system in D.C. has to carry it, no matter whether it has any interest or not. And they have to carry that before they can carry us.

Glassman: Do you think the must-carry provision is going to change?

Lamb: No, I suspect it will take a long time for that to happen. It's pretty much entrenched, at least for the main tier of channels. Congress has given the local broadcasters an enormous amount of power that they can then use as leverage to get carriers for other channels that they own. It's not unlike ABC in its major markets coming in with an enormous amount of leverage to carry everything from the Disney Channel to ESPN. NBC comes in with leverage to carry CNBC and MSNBC. CBS comes in with leverage to carry TNN: The National Network, formerly The Nashville Network, and lots of other things they want to develop, including digital channels. On a long-term basis, it's an extraordinary amount of power to occupy channels that should be available to a lot of different people.

Glassman: In regard to digital broadcasts, the networks as I understand it also were given a broad amount of spectrum in order to develop high-definition TV, and now they seem to be less enthusiastic about doing that. What is going to happen there?

Lamb: Well, you have an enormous amount of valuable spectrum that has been turned over to the broadcasters. And the Federal Communication Commission has basically said they have until 2006 to transfer whatever they're going to need as an over-the-air broadcaster for their digital channel and then give up their analog channel (which most current televisions deliver). But if 85 percent of the nation's television sets aren't capable of receiving the digital channel, then the broadcasters don't have to give it up.

Glassman: Will enough people have such sets by then?

Lamb: Everybody tries to force something on the American people. This has happened before. Now they are trying to force them into buying HDTV sets, which are costing somewhere from $3,000 to $5,000 to $10,000, depending on what brand you're going to buy. But the enhancement of the picture and the change and the ratio from a 4x5 ratio picture to a 6x9 ratio picture has not been that enticing to people to spend that kind of money. And until there's a lot more programming that really excites the American people, they're not going to spend that kind of money. It's another one of our interesting little train wrecks that is going to happen down the line or somewhere.

The sad thing may be if Congress decides that it's going to force the cable operator to make space for the over-the-air broadcaster, people like us (C-SPAN) will get hurt again because we're on the edge. We're not moneymaking for anybody, and if they're looking for space, we're an obvious candidate. And so, I don't see any great demand. If there were ever a lot of digital television or HDTV, it would be because those people in government forced it on the American people.

Glassman: C-SPAN has two primary channels now. How many markets carry both?

Lamb: With the big companies, 65 percent of subscribers that get C-SPAN 1, get C-SPAN 2 pretty much on a full time basis.

Glassman: And now you've launched C-SPAN 3? What is that?

Lamb: C-SPAN 3 is like a new section in your newspaper. It's like the fact that you could now get 12 or 14 HBOs and they all offer you time shifting and choice. C-SPAN 3 is just another choice of public affairs with some emphasis on history at nights and on weekends. But it's primarily an opportunity for us and the viewer to see events other than the House and the Senate when they are in session. Right now, it's not very widespread. We are probably in about 3 million homes, which is, by the way, as big as we were always started back in 1979. At this juncture, only one large company has supported us, and in fact supported us substantially, and that's Time Warner. They have just announced that we will be on almost all of their cable networks.

Glassman: So it will be on, for example, in New York?

Lamb: Places like New York, Kansas City, Orlando; places like Rochester, Indianapolis, places like Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina.

Glassman: Will the consumer need anything special to pick up the signal?

Lamb: We don't use digital equipment or anything like that, but it's a channel that's transmitted into the digital tier of a cable system. The consumer needs to subscribe on a local basis to what's called the "digital tier", and it usually runs somewhere in the vicinity of $7 to $10 more a month. They will get a box in that process that they'll put on their television sets. And it will open it up to, you know, to eventually a hundred or two hundred channels, or to see C-SPAN 3.

Glassman: About five years ago, I guess it was John Malone (CEO of then cable giant TCI that merged with AT&T in 1999) who was talking about how everyone is going to have access to 500 channels...

Lamb: Ten years ago...

Glassman: ...0 years ago. and, you know, I have 60 or so stations in New York, and it seems like 50 of them are playing the same thing. When we are going to see the variety that has been promised in cable?

Lamb: You get variety now. You may not think so, but you do. If you go down that dial and stop long enough to think through what they are doing, you are getting an enormous amount of choice, just about everything you are going to get in the long run. What I mean by that is that you get gardening, you get food, you get sports, you get public affairs, you get arts and entertainment. I don't need to go down the list. You can see just as well as I can. You get 60 channels in New York. But if you get digital TV, you'd have considerably more than that.

Glassman: Going back. You mentioned Time Warner's support. Some C-SPAN viewers, despite your best efforts, will hear this as a surprise -- that C-SPAN is funded primarily by the cable industry and satellite. Do you get good support from the big cable companies, such as AT&T, Comcast, Cox and Time Warner and so forth?

Lamb: We get outstanding support from all of those companies right now.

Glassman: Are you concerned that as toll communications evolve toward the Internet that you will be losing some of the sources of your funding?

Lamb: Well, as long as there's cable industry and a satellite business up there that needs programming, there's no reason to be concerned. But you always have to look ahead and anticipate where all of this is going. But at the moment, there's no evidence that viewers are leaving cable television and going to the Internet in any degree that is cutting into revenue.

Glassman: What about the consolidation that's been occurring in the cable industry? I would assume you have fewer companies that are funding you these days. Is that a worry?

Lamb: No, the funding continues to be the same. The only danger on the long-term basis is that a huge company in this mix would decide for some reason or another that they didn't want to support things any longer and they could pull the plug on 30 percent of our customers.

Glassman: It's like a business that has only five or six big clients, it might be kind worried about losing one of them.

Lamb: Yes, but it's hard to believe that any responsible company in the United States would take the risk of pulling the plug in a society that expects you to do something for the community other than just make money.

Glassman: What about the controversy that's developing over caps on cable ownership? I know there are some companies complaining that these caps ought to be lifted under the Bush administration. How would that affect you?

Lamb: Well, again, it's the same issue. You know, we like the independence; we like the fact that we have multiple owners; we like that the power is spread around. I mean, I got in the business in the first place because I didn't like the concentration of power with the three commercial television networks. I can't all of a sudden change my philosophy. My short-term purpose is that everybody's happy and onboard and supporting the network. But I don't know what the cap should be. I know that outside of my industry when I see one company owning a thousand radio stations, it seems to me that that goes against what the original intent of the Communications Act (of 1933) -- the philosophy of giving these channels away to people free of charge -- had been in the first place.

Glassman: C-SPAN is also on radio now. You have a station in Washington, D.C., and are looking into satellite radio. What's happening?

Lamb: We are on contract with two companies that will start up later in the year broadcasting via satellite to, by and large, all vehicles on the road. One is Sirius Satellite Radio and the other is called XM Satellite Radio. Eventually, there will be a hundred channels on each system. You have to subscribe like you do to cable, put a special device in your car, and you will get C-SPAN radio on a full time basis.

Glassman: Would you have an antenna or dish on your car so you could pick up satellite signals anywhere in the country?.

Lamb: Correct, you can get it in any state but Alaska or Hawaii. It's about year and a half late, but one of the companies, Sirius has three satellites in place ready to broadcast. XM started to launch a couple of weeks ago, but had a delay for technical reasons . They are expected to launch the next couple of weeks. Sirius is going to start alpha-beta testing in a couple of weeks.

Glassman: How do you see the future of radio? It seems that now you can pick up radio stations on the Internet. Is the local radio station a dinosaur?

Lamb: I think local radio station will be here forever, just like local television. They possibly may not have as large audience as they have today because there will be a change in audience when the new satellite comes on board. But as many stations as you can get on the Internet -- the last number I heard was something like 300, though there is probably lot more than that -- it is still not pulling very much audience. I suspect it will not pull much audience because, in the end, people like to get the local weather, local sports, and the local contact - the feeling that you are involved in something local. Local is still more popular than national.

Glassman: I want to ask you about your own use of the Internet. An insider told me that you are not a big Internet user. Am I right?

Lamb: I don't use the Internet at all.

Glassman: Not at all?

Lamb: Not at all.

Glassman: So what do you do in the morning to get ready for the day?

Lamb: I read. I read the good old-fashioned newspapers, which I dearly love. I'm the happiest when I can look at my hands and find them so black from newspaper print after spending three or four hours reading and that's where I still get my information. I know I'm old-fashioned, but, thank goodness, I'm on my way out and the young people are on their way in.

By the way, I love the Internet. That sounds crazy. I know about the Internet. I've studied the Internet. I've watched others use the Internet, and I think it's the greatest thing that has ever happened to free communication. Don't get me wrong. Someday, I'll grow up and figure out how to use it. But I just haven't needed it based on what I like to do, and so I just haven't used it. But I think it's going to be a tremendous thing in the future.

Glassman: Hasn't C-SPAN just started a new web site venture, Capitolhearings.org?

Lamb: It is a website that we set up for people who are interested in listening to hearings. Right now it's in the Senate, it will eventually be in the House, too. But at any given day out of 27 hearing rooms in the Senate side we're wired now, you can hear the hearing by just going to Capitolhearings.org, and as soon as we get the House side wired, we're going to be doing the same thing. So it's for people who want to get more about these hearings than they can get on television.

Glassman: One last question. Does the fact that the oral arguments in the Florida voting case that went to the Supreme Court last December were taped and immediately broadcast (without pictures) give you some kind of a foot in the door for possibly televising oral arguments before the Supreme Court in the future?

Lamb: I guess it gives you a toe in the door but the Supreme Court has been radically opposed to allowing television cameras in the courtroom and I don't think you're going to see a retreat on that position for a long time. I think it is going to have to be almost a new court. It will happen some day, I suspect, because there is nothing to be afraid of. The court has such proper decorum and all that, there's not a thing to worry about. But you can't convince folks there now. The magic was that Chief Justice Rehnquist thought this was important enough for people at least to be able to hear it and so that was a breakthrough, but we're a long way from having cameras in there.

Glassman: Thank you, Brian.
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