The Blog

C-SPAN Turns 25

Celebrating a quarter century of nappers, nosepickers, and no-nonsense lawmaking.

11:00 PM, Mar 18, 2004 • By ERIN MONTGOMERY
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ON MARCH 19, 1979--25 years ago today--an energetic congressman from Tennessee delivered the first televised speech on the House floor. That congressman was Al Gore, and this is what he said in the one minute allotted to him by then-House speaker Tip O'Neill:

Mr. Speaker, on this historic day, the House of Representatives opens its proceedings for the first time to televised coverage. I wish to congratulate you for your courage in making this possible, and the committee who has worked so hard under the leadership of Congressman Charles Rose to make this a reality. Television will change this institution, Mr. Speaker, just as it has changed the executive branch, but the good will far outweigh the bad. From this day forward, every member of this body must ask himself or herself how many Americans are listening to the debates which are made. When the House becomes comfortable with the changes brought by television coverage, the news media will be allowed to bring their own cameras into this chamber. In the meantime, there is no censorship. Every word is available for broadcast coverage, and journalists will be able to use and edit as they see fit. The solution for the lack of confidence in government, Mr. Speaker, is more open government at all levels. I hope, for example, that the leadership of the United States Senate will see this as a friendly challenge to begin to open their proceedings. In America, this medium and our open debate has the potential, Mr. Speaker, to revitalize representative democracy.

And with that, the Cable Satellite Public Affairs Network, or C-SPAN, was born. A little over seven years later, on June 2, 1986, Gore's hope became a reality, and C-SPAN 2 was launched. Gore, a senator by that time, delivered one of the first speeches aired on the new sister program that would televise Senate proceedings.

In preparation for this article, I headed over to the C-SPAN office to watch the first two hours of House action ever televised by the network. I pop the first tape in, listen closely to Gore's opening speech, and watch various representatives take to the floor to introduce their respective bills. Rep. Earl Hutto (D-Fla.) introduces a bill to amend the Food Stamp Act of 1977, and Rep. Bob Carr (D-Mich.) lobbies for a bill to place a limit on outside incomes earned by members of both houses of Congress. Representative C.W. Bill Young, a particularly passionate Republican from Florida, spends his minute criticizing international organizations like the World Bank, or what he calls "super-sovereign group[s] of high-living, international moneychangers accountable to no one but themselves."

Later, there is a rather heated debate over House Resolution 1301, a bill that would amend Title 18 of the U.S. Code and allow for the overseas mailing of lottery equipment , tickets, etc. to foreign countries where playing the lottery is already legal. Enter Rep. Carlos J. Moorhead (R-Calif.), who argues that "gambling" legislation is unwise, unimportant, and unnecessary: "These are times of serious problems, both domestic and international. Inflation, the Middle East, the energy crisis all deserve the creative, working attention of this House. HR 1301 deserves neither our attention nor our support." Representative Harold S. Sawyer (R-Mich.) disagrees; and so does Rep. George E. Danielson (D-Calif.), who rattles off the benefits, such as U.S. job creation, that would result from passing the bill.

And just when I think the whole discussion is getting a bit monotone, I notice Rep. Sawyer's bright plaid pants. This blinding '70s fashion statement awakens my senses, and so I watch the second hour, which includes a debate on the importance of technology, specifically the need to develop and improve the House's computer system.

Brian Lamb, the network's founder, told Broadcasting magazine in 1980 that part of C-SPAN's mission "is to show that [politics] isn't always exciting." Exciting or not, C-SPAN has become a cable TV institution that has, quite literally, shaped the way constituents view their representatives, even those that former representative B.F. Sisk (D-Calif.) once called the "nappers and nosepickers," according to a 1979 article by the Los Angeles Times. Viewers could see their representatives in law-making action minus the commentary and analysis of reporters. Since day one, the network has broadcast over 24,346 hours of House floor proceedings. On March 19, 1979, the live broadcast could be seen in 3.5 million households. Today, 87 million homes have C-SPAN.