C-Span faces a budget crisis

A C-Span truck at Miami-Dade College in Miami.


Photo:

Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Congress may be spending more money than ever, but so is the TV station that is providing live coverage of it. C-Span expects its revenue to fall below $50 million this year for the first time since 2005. This does not bode well for an invaluable service to American democracy.

Founded in 1979 by a consortium of cable television operators as a not-for-profit organization, C-Span began providing hammer-to-gavel coverage of the house. Senate proceedings were added seven years later. As is the case today, the income comes primarily from a proportion of the monthly fees: around 6 cents per connected household. In the mid-1990s, DirecTV and other satellite competitors began broadcasting the channels for the same per-customer fee.

Now, C-Span faces two distinct roadblocks: reach and revenue. Cord-cutting, the move away from cable and satellite, has reduced distribution of C-Span through these outlets from about 100 million in 2014 to about 70 million homes. With 98% of sales tied directly to these markets, C-Span’s annual sales are down about $20 million.

what can be done In addition to selling coffee mugs and t-shirts, C-Span runs ads on its website, mobile app, and YouTube channel. However, the primary cable and satellite feeds remain ad-free.

“There were some inconsistencies,” says co-CEO Susan Swain in an interview. “We’re kind of dipping our ankles in the pond here, going from a company that hasn’t had to do so in 40 years to rethinking our relationship with our subsidiaries and with our end customers, while maintaining the core mission of what we do.”

C-Span was intended to create a corporate underwriting format similar to PBS. She has never sought government funding, insisting that such a move would contradict her bipartisan mission. And C-Span hasn’t asked viewers to become patrons yet. Sources say calls for public donations will begin soon.

Management is also desperate for deals with streaming services like Hulu Live, which is operated by Disney,

and YouTube TV, which is owned by Google and would bring in millions of dollars in revenue. Talks have not progressed far, although this appears to be a clear public service opportunity for the companies involved.

About 25% of US households now have free access to C-Span’s primary coverage of Congress via the Internet, despite not having a traditional cable or satellite subscription. That’s approximately 35 million homes that C-Span does not generate revenue from. At 6 cents per customer per month, the potential revenue is approximately $25 million per year. Remarkably, much of this broadband service is provided by the very media companies, including Comcast and Cox, which sit on C-Span’s board of directors.

C-Span doesn’t help these companies the way it did in 1979, when cable operators needed to impress local communities with their civic spirit in hopes of winning exclusive franchises. For the public, however, it remains an indispensable service – perhaps now more than ever.

Americans need a window into government business, and C-Span needs more than coffee mugs, T-shirts, and good intentions to keep it open.

Mr. Funt is the author of Self-Amused: A Tell-Some Memoir.

Wonderland: The US governmental system has mired in the mud after decades of “doing something” to solve problems only to make things worse. Images: AFP/Getty Images Composite: Mark Kelly

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Appeared in the print edition on June 15, 2022.

https://www.wsj.com/articles/cspan-budget-crisis-congress-streaming-cable-access-revenue-susan-swain-11655241028 C-Span faces a budget crisis

Mike Fahey

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