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
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
• 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
• At a Ford Motor Company
conference on total quality, all participants received
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
October 2000 News for a