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For three days now, America has been addicted to a new TV show playing out before our eyes: The U.S. House of Representatives on C-SPAN.
Kevin McCarthy, either the show’s protagonist or antagonist, depending on who you ask, is trying — and so far failing — to become Speaker of the House. And it’s all happening live, with the non-profit public affairs channel garnering more attention than it has since, well, maybe ever.
“I mean, just any brief scroll of social media shows you thousands of people talking about us that typically, probably, would not be talking about us,” C-SPAN director of editorial operations Ben O’Connell tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I don’t recall the last time I have seen C-SPAN mentioned on Twitter with this frequency. I’m not sure it’s ever happened before.”
Indeed, C-SPAN has been ubiquitous this week.
“This the best season of C-SPAN… ever,” tweeted Jon Stewart.
“Watching McCarthy work Rep. Andrew Clyde is C-SPAN at its no-rules best,” said veteran D.C. journalist Jonathan Allen.
“I haven’t watched this much C-SPAN since I was a child… (@cindymccain kept it on in the background of our kitchen),” Meghan McCain tweeted.
“Maybe this is C-SPAN sweeps week,” added Washington Post columnist Alexandra Petri.
Even viewers of other TV channels couldn’t avoid it, with CNN’s Jake Tapper telling viewers: “There’s a very real impact to all this dysfunction, besides C-SPAN’s ratings going up.”
C-SPAN, it should be noted, is not rated by Nielsen, as it doesn’t have advertising on its linear TV channels (though it does have ads on some of its streaming videos, and you can buy C-SPAN merch like a “C-SPAN and chill” blanket on its website). But there’s no question that, at least this week, everyone is glued to its coverage, if all the clips ricocheting across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and TikTok are any indication.
While some coverage has suggested that a lack of a House speaker means there are no rules around outside cameras in the House chamber, O’Connell says that isn’t quite right. Rather, the House allows outside cameras in for big events, like a State of the Union, or, yes, a speaker vote. Those special events just don’t normally last, ya know, a whole week.
“It’s not unusual that we would have our cameras in there for the speaker election, it’s just that this is a very unusual speaker election, so people are paying a lot more attention to it,” O’Connell says. “Many Americans are probably not aware that most of the time that you see the House of Representatives on C-SPAN, it’s actually being shot by government employees with government cameras, and they have fairly stringent guidelines under which they have to operate.”
Having independent cameras and camera operators in the chambers is the reason that viewers watching C-SPAN on TV or online saw Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) deep in conversation with Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), who “are not exactly ideologically aligned with one another, to put it mildly,” O’Connell notes. “We’ve seen Kevin McCarthy, having to sit there and listen to people vote against him over and over again.”
“You know, during a typical house session, you don’t see reaction shots,” O’Connell adds. “It’s against the guidelines that the House recording studio operates under. You do not see people reacting to what’s being said about them or about their position. And over the last couple days, you’ve seen a lot of that. And we’ll continue to see that for as long as this goes.”
He adds that the House studio employees are “great professionals … They are very good at what they do. But they operate under very strict guidelines that don’t allow them to tell the story, the way the journalists can tell it.”
“If it were the government operating the cameras, you wouldn’t get the story the way that you’re getting it right now,” O’Connell says.
And this week at least, journalists are able to tell that story, thanks to C-SPAN’s cameras, catching the huddled groups on the side of the chamber, the negotiating in plain sight, and the reactions to the absurd goings-on.
And while it’s unlikely that the freedom will continue once a speaker is finally chosen and the cameras return to the control of House employees, C-SPAN will be among the outlets pushing for that status quo to change, as it has long done when it comes to access to Congress, the Supreme Court, and other institutions.
“I think it is absolutely a worthy endeavor for us to continue pursuing having cameras in the room when major decisions are being made, that are going to affect the lives of the American people. And we will continue to push for that,” O’Connell says. “I hope that coverage, like we’ve seen over the last two days, will lead people to understand how integral it is to have journalists behind the cameras when these decisions are being made.”
With the chaos in the House likely to become a season-long drama (to drive home that analogy), featuring razor-close votes, dramatic speeches and other surprises (maybe a cameo or two?), viewers may yearn for the freedom they are getting from the C-SPAN journalists this week even more.
At the very least, maybe all of C-SPAN old and new fans will have an appreciation for the public affairs channel, and its financial backers in the cable TV industry.
“I’ve been with the company for almost 22 years, and I still have people who I know very well who discover for the first time in conversations with me that C-SPAN is not a government agency,” O’Connell says. “I think we are so identified with coverage of the House, coverage of the Senate, that they assume we are a government agency, and not a non-profit that’s, you know, 90 percent funded by the cable and satellite television companies that carry us.”
It’s enough to almost make you want to call your friends and implore them to pay for cable, for America’s sake.
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