ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

Online Edition - October 2000


Issue Highlight — In Praise of C-SPAN
- Peter Block explains how supporting and viewing more media like C-SPAN, free of interpretation and corporate meddling, could provide an answer to the commercialized, unintellectual broadcasting that captures most of our attention.

  One From Column B                                                                         Peter Block

 In This Issue...
Love 'Em and Lead 'Em
Getting The Moose On The Table
Is Zen Your Cup Of Tea?
A Mariner's Tale

Peter Block Column
Views for a Change
Heard on the Street

Return to NFC Index

In Praise of C-SPAN

  We live in a culture of commerce and it invades not only what we do, but what we become. At the heart of commerce is the capacity to market, sell and build a future on what is most often a false promise. It is most obvious in this season of a presidential campaign where each candidate promises a future that not one of their predecessors has been able to deliver. If I vote Republican, Democrat or Green, my taxes will go down, my children will learn more in school, my health care will improve and cost less, the streets will be safe, my family will be preserved and happy, the environment will be sustained and I will be able to sleep through the night.

  It is similar to the story of a person who broke their arm and went to the doctor. As the doctor was setting the arm, the patient asked the doctor, "When my arm heals, will I be able to play the violin?" The doctor said, "Yes, definitely." The patient said, "That's wonderful news, because I didn't know how to play the violin before I broke my arm."
The candidates have become products, we are the consumer and the winner is the one with the best merchandising talent and resources. The issues become background and the action is about positioning, reach and mass customizing messages so that every citizen receives a message that is aimed at their particular interest.

  The campaign is simply an extension of the marketing culture that we have learned to accept and participate in. I have been puzzled lately why:

It takes three hours to get your pictures developed in a "One Hour
   Photo Developing" store?
Dollar Car Rental charges $55.00 to rent a car?
It takes up to eight months to get an article published in Fast Company magazine?
At a Ford Motor Company conference on total quality, all participants received a
  gift of a portable car repair kit.
When I buy a set of wrenches from TV for $59.95, I get 300 screws and fasteners   "absolutely free."

  And we are all guilty, we each contribute to the illusion. I give talks at conferences and read in the publicity brochure that I am an "International Leading Change Management Expert." Really...Well, who am I leading and when did the race begin, who is ahead of me, and what is "change management" anyway? I think I must have become an expert the first time my advice was not followed. And as far as being "international," I gave a talk in Toronto six years ago, so that must count.

An Oasis of Integrity

  If we are not careful, we begin to believe that this is the way it has to be-not true. Much of the selling of America comes through the medium of television and it is on television that the alternative to the "Big Promise" and the "Big Promotion" can be found. It is on C-SPAN. It is two cable channels that tell the truth, and treat me like something more than a consumer. C-SPAN is non-commercial and funded by the cable industry. It was originally created to live-broadcast the sessions of Congress, and in the early days was profoundly boring. In fact, I used to threaten my children that if they did not behave themselves, their punishment would be to watch three hours of C-SPAN.
Not so any more. Here are some of the qualities of this media treasure:

1. You get viewpoints that never make it on the major networks and cable channels. One weekend I watched the National Libertarian Convention. I heard the argument for no government which included the legalization of marijuana. The proponent of legalization presented the evidence that the drug has no medical liability and does not affect the brain cells or our memory. After presenting the findings, the speaker stood in silence for a few moments, having forgotten the rest of the speech-interesting.

2. Programming is presented without editorial comment. No one interprets the world for me, it is just presented. The campaign conventions were just shown, beginning to end, uninterrupted by talking heads telling me the tactical importance and nuances of what I am watching. Other recent events aired were a conference of Nobel Prize winners and world leaders at the Aspen Institute speaking on globalization and poverty. Almost every cause and institute has its day here which makes it a powerful force for the democratic expression of ideas. All with no fanfare, no commerce, no effort to sell derivative products, just content.

3. On the weekends, there is "Booknotes." You see authors talking about their work. Sometimes you see them in local bookstores discussing a book, answering questions or being interviewed by Brian Lamb. You hear about their writing, their lives, their view of the world, all in a quiet, thoughtful, conversational way. No crossfire, no dramatic confrontations, just ideas and the people behind them.

4. C-SPAN is the only channel that puts the program first and the time slot second. Shows do not start at the beginning and end of the hour. They are shown for as long as they take. Some last twenty minutes, some four hours. Plus, programs get repeated several times to fit my schedule. If you are among those that are awake in the middle of the night, you can watch the same quality of programs that were on during the day.

5. Finally, if you like what you see and want a copy of it, you can get the video tape of it for $19.95 plus shipping and handling. Transcripts are even less.

 This is all the good news. Being an imperfect world, the bad news is that C-SPAN is still required to broadcast congressional speeches when Congress is in session, which keeps it as a candidate for child discipline possibilities. Also, even when it is free to really inform us, it is a virtually unwatched national asset. The number of people watching C-SPAN does not even show up on the Neilson rating scale. That is what needs to change. Watching programming that treats the viewer as a thoughtful adult is an answer to the commercial and dumbing down broadcasting that captures most of our attention.
At the moment each of us decides to support those media, like C-SPAN, that live out free speech and are truly democratic and pluralistic in their actions, something in the culture will start to shift. Granted the Internet offers this potential, but even this is increasingly becoming commercialized and controlled by corporate interest.

  C-SPAN is a pure play for intellectual diversity and free speech. If it became the most watched TV channel, then the market pressure of our attention might result in our once again being able to get a photo developed in an hour, rent a car for a dollar, get an article published quickly in Fast Company, and, who knows, when my arm heals, I might be able to play the violin.

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