What is C-SPAN and Where Did It Come From?
Watch Your Government in Action on Real Reality TV
​January 24, 2019


Since 2008, public interest in elections and government have increased dramatically.  People of all ages, incomes, and political views follow news coverage of the campaigns, White House, and Congressional events.  Several television channels cover all of those topics.

In 1979, major companies in the cable television industry founded C-SPAN, the Cable Satellite Public Affairs Network.  Its purpose is to provide public access to the political process.  The cable and satellite TV companies finance C-SPAN and it’s included in most of their TV packages.

C-SPAN I offers live gavel-to-gavel coverage of US House of Representatives committee hearings and floor sessions, including votes.  C-SPAN II covers the same events in the US Senate.  When Congress is not in session, the network presents discussions, debates, press briefings, and other events relating to public policy.  During evenings and weekends, there are several regular series. Washington Journal hosts interview government officials and other newsmakers.  Book TV shows sessions with authors of books on US history and policy.  During Question Time, the British prime minister takes questions from members of Parliament.  C-SPAN III covers discussions about American history.

The best thing about the programs is that they take their time.  Since there are no commercials, they don’t have to rush through their segments.  C-SPAN programs contain no editing, commentary, or analysis.  There’s no play-by-play.  It’s refreshing to watch an event without the incessant chattering of the talking TV heads on the standard networks.

Because it’s a public service, C-SPAN doesn’t track viewer ratings as the commercial networks do. However, some research groups have conducted studies to learn more about the audience.  The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press estimates that 52 million Americans watch C-SPAN “sometimes” or “regularly”.  Their political views span all ideologies – conservative, moderate, and liberal.  The viewers closely follow government and political issues and are very interested in international news.  They are primarily younger than age 50 and are more likely to have college degrees than the viewers of other news networks.

You can watch past programs and live streaming video on the Web site, cspan.org.  The site also contains an extensive resource section with links to many major US newspapers, magazines, and TV networks as well as Congressional caucuses, various government offices, and tutorials on the legislative process.  It has more information on what’s happening in the White House than the White House website does.

You can also follow C-SPAN on Facebook and Twitter.

Pennsylvania’s version is PCN-TV, the Pennsylvania Cable Network, also created and funded by cable and satellite TV companies.  It covers the state legislature’s hearings and sessions, interviews newsmakers, visits historic sites, and shows some state college and high school sports events.  PCN has a very interesting series spotlighting Pennsylvania businesses and factories.

C-SPAN and PCN are both listed in your local TV listings.
Try them.  You won’t be disappointed.

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Patricia A. O'Malley
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Patricia A. O'Malley

Social Policy & Programs Consulting

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