Lamb: Staying On, But Leaving Helm in Good HandsWill remain executive chairman of the board and continue his weekly interview show; says channel is “somebody else’s baby” now 3/26/2012 12:01:00 AM Eastern
CEO Brian Lamb is stepping down from day-to-day operations at C-SPAN, the
public affairs network he helped build into a national institution. He will
remain executive chairman of the board and continue his weekly interview show, Q&A, but the channel is "somebody
else's baby" now, he says. Lamb talked to B&C
last week about how that "baby" was born, and how it has been cared for by
the cable industry.
Why did you start C-SPAN?
involved in this because I felt very strongly, coming out of the Midwest, that
we weren't getting enough information. I had been in the Navy and I came to
Washington and I was at the Pentagon for two years watching the Vietnam War
information battle and getting to know how the networks operated and it was
just an instinct. I kept saying to myself it's got to be better than this, 30
minutes a night on these three networks and they all did basically the same thing
and thought the same way.
to Capitol Hill and worked a couple of years and ended up down in the Office of
Telecommunications Policy and these were geniuses and they really understood
policy and they wanted to change it, not because they wanted to take anything
away but they wanted to add. That was what taught me how [C-SPAN] would
motivation wasn't Congress in particular, but providing substantially new
information based on my own experience [in Washington]. I would go back to
Indiana and tell my friends what I had seen, and they couldn't see it because
they weren't living here, and they were interested in politics.
Bob Johnson saw a need and became
a billionaire with BET. Michael Bloomberg saw a news need and made a billion,
too. Seems like you came up with this great idea and essentially donated it to
been a fascinating thing, learning about how money works in business. But the
money thing was never on my radar. Some of the business people will tell you, âHe
did not know the first thing about money.' They taught me, and I mean [cable
exec] Bob Rosencrans, all the basics. I made the presentation to 40 cable
operators, and [Rosencrans] was the only guy in the room who came up and said, âI
like your idea and I would like to support it.' After things started to take
off and he gave me a $25,000 check, I said ânow what?' He said: âYou have to
write a business plan.' And I didn't have a clue what a business plan was. So
he said, âYou come to Connecticut where I live and I'll spend a day with you
and teach you how to write a business plan,' and that's what happened.
money was just never a mission of mine. I'm comfortably paid but it is just not
the reason I got into this.
Why did you set up this sort of
bi-cameral succession with Rob Kennedy and Susan Swain as co-presidents and now
really evolved. There was a time when we had a five-person executive management
committee and everybody that worked here started right out of college. They all
began to show their talents over time. Rob has an extraordinary talent when it
comes to managing money. In the 25 years he has been here we have never had a
bad report from our auditors about anything. Susan was hired in 1982 for
$15,000 a year as a producer. She just constantly demonstrated leadership
ability and understanding of our mission.
out of that executive management committee, I decided the two of them, who were
eventually executive vice presidents and co-chief operating officers, made
sense. I talked to the board about the transition. They made great
presentations to the board. There was no magic to it, except they have the
talent to work together. They don't show any ego in this game, and that is
extraordinary. It often doesn't work, but I think the reason that it might work
here is that there is no profit, and profit leads to needing one person to make
the decisions and somebody you either congratulate and give that huge bonus to
or blame and fire, and here it is really the mission: whether or not at the end
of the year we have met our budget, haven't spent more than we were able to
generate, and stayed on mission.
What are you proudest of about
don't think in those terms. I've never taken the time to put my feet up and
say: âIsn't this great?' I actually am most proud of the fact that this
transition worked and that I am able to walk away and still have an
organization that is on mission 35 years later. We are doing the same thing we
set out to do.
this industry hadn't stuck by us over the years, we wouldn't be here. And if
you look around, almost no network is doing the same thing today as it was in
the beginning. There are many stories like the Nashville Network that went to
Spike TV or Court TV that went to Spike TV. We're still on mission.
You talked about walking away,
but aren't you sticking around for at least three more years?
gonna stick around, but I am definitely out of the day-to-day decision-making.
I will be involved in what we are euphemistically calling strategic planning.
But, it is their baby. I love representing the channel and talking about it. I
love proselytizing and I am a bit jealous about it, and that will never go
away. But they have the responsibility to look to the future and find their
Speaking of issues you are
passionate about, C-SPAN continues to push for cameras in Supreme Court oral
are some simple reasons. They have absolutely nothing to lose by doing it and
they have everything to gain by letting the public see how that process works.
Unlike any other institution, they are in control. They don't vote their
emotions. The Chief Justice can control any advocate who stands up in front of
the court if they begin to grandstand.
a marvelous institution. I know that people give reasons and wring their hands
about it and all that stuff. But keep in mind that oral argument is usually
only an hour, with most of what is important having been laid down in the
briefs. Then they go behind closed doors, which we're not asking to cover, and
make the decision, and then write the opinions behind closed doors, as they
should. The oral argument is important, but it does let the public know that
there is no jury in the room and that these are terrifically qualified people
to sit there up on the dais.
Do you support the current
legislation that would mandate coverage, with the judges allowed to decide on a
have stayed out of supporting a bill. Yes, it would be nice if the Congress
passed a bill, but my guess is it would be unconstitutional based on the fact
that you have three equal branches of government and the court very much sets
its own rules. I think the court has to do it on its own and realize that the
education value is significant. And until they do, they are going to keep
saying no. And they will stand firm because there are several members of the
court who are adamantly opposed to television and, frankly, they don't know
much about television. It is always an awkward discussion.
were very good to us, let us in to show the whole court inside and out, talk to
all living Justices, first time that ever happened in history, did a
documentary on the place [the Supreme
Court: Home to America's Highest Court]. That part of it I can't complain.
They just don't want to do this [televising oral argument]. I have to give
Chief Justice [Roberts] credit. He has brought us a long way. Chief Justice
Bill Rehnquist did it first when he allowed same-day coverage of audio portions
of this. I think what they might do eventually is allow same-day audio
coverage-it is now on an ad hoc basis. I don't quite understand why they want
to do it that way. It would also work if they wanted to release a video at the
end of the week. We are a society that loves its day-to-day exciting reaction
to things, but this is historic. It is a process that takes time, and I think
that is part of what the public should get a better glimpse of.
Are you concerned about the
divisive tone of political discourse, or does that just make for a more
not one that is concerned. I don't like some of the things that people are
saying in this society about one another, but it's the definition of freedom. It's
hard. People wring their hands and say, We've got to stop this or stop that. My
reaction to it is, if you don't like it, don't watch it. If you don't like the
talk shows on radio, don't listen to them. I know a ton of people who don't.
Most of what you see on our network is not uncivil. Politics is a very serious
business and most people don't realize there is a lot at stake. They don't
think about it in that way. They think their side should win all the time. The
reason why we are divided as a country is because we are divided as a country.
remember back during Lyndon Johnson where there was a great imbalance and the
country was not nearly as divided because the Democrats controlled everything
and they controlled it with a large majority of the vote. Part of the
bitterness that you see today from the Republican side was the fact that they
were kept out of it for 40 years and that is just a natural backlash. I don't
think it is anything to worry about.
What will you be doing at C-SPAN?
doing research now on the history of this place and trying to figure out
whether there is either a book or Website to set up and leave a little bit of a
legacy and how things happened. I will do this one-hour interview show every
week and I do put a tremendous amount of research in it so that at least I know
something about what the guest is talking about so I can get the best
still chairman of board and on the executive committee and responsible for
broad outlines of what this place is doing. The nice thing about my three-year
agreement is that I don't have to be here every day. And I am not looking for
vacations, but I have only been married for six and a half years-first time-we
haven't gone anywhere and done anything of any great nature and it is time to
spend more time with friends and do some traveling. It is a pretty nice
arrangement. I'm in great shape, and have the same energy I had when this place
been around longer than anyone in the business. There isn't anyone still
running a company that started back in the â70s. Since money was not the
objective, I didn't look at any point to sell out. I think that was part of
signaling to everybody in our business that we were serious about this, that it
was not a place to build and flip.
Anything we did not cover that
you would like to talk about?
The only thing that is very
important to me is the people in the industry who started this place and stuck
with it over the years, and there are some of them still on the board, Amos
Hostetter, John Evans, Bob Miron, and a lot of the newcomers-I can't tell you
how important they were. And the media-not the trade media-misses that story.
If the collective group had not supported this from the beginning and continued
to support it through 35 years, we wouldn't be here. This whole world is pegged
toward the bottom line, and this place has never made a dime for anybody. The
industry has spent a billion dollars in these 35 years for a product that is
nothing but public service.