If founder Brian Lamb had to do it over again, C-SPAN wouldn’t be called C-SPAN.
“It’s not the greatest name around,” says Lamb, 70, who steps down Sunday as CEO. “Three people know what it stands for. I don’t even know what it stands for. One of our board members asked me. We rarely ever spell it out.”
Drum roll, please.
Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network launched on March 19, 1979, with four employees (including Lamb) and a reach of 3.5 million homes. It now includes three networks, a staff of 280 and a universe of 100 million homes.
Most Americans assume the ‘C’ in C-SPAN stands for Congress, since covering Congress’ proceedings – live, unfiltered, gavel-to-gavel – is its raison d’etre. But in 1979, with cable in its infancy, Lamb felt it more important to brand C-SPAN as a non-broadcast enterprise.
“Otherwise, people wouldn’t have known what it was,” says Lamb, newly-named executive chairman. “At that point, we were only the sixth cable network.”
These days, C-SPAN suffers no such identity crisis, though Lamb does, often being mistaken for Sen. John McCain, Ed Harris or John Glenn. According to C-SPAN’s most recent survey, 75 percent of respondents recognize the non-profit network’s name, Lamb says. Since C-SPAN does not have ratings, however, he has no hard numbers on viewership.
ABC’s Cokie Roberts, who was, in her own words, “very involved in the birth” of C-SPAN, sees the network’s identity issue differently.
“I don’t think people are aware of the brand, but they’re very aware of the product,” Roberts, 68, says. As an NPR reporter in the late ‘70s, she and her colleagues in Congress’ Radio-TV gallery joined Lamb in lobbying the House of Representatives to allow TV cameras on the floor.
Despite C-SPAN’s noble mission, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and ‘Saturday Night Live,’ among others, parody the network’s frequently-static content as a perfect sleep aid.
In real life, C-SPAN fan Ed Rendell, former Democratic National Committee Chairman, swears by the network for his nightly zzzz’s.
“I have a hyperactive mind, so I watch TV in my living room and fall asleep for about 90