If Barack Obama's candidacy has motivated young voters to get involved in politics, few cable outlets are better positioned to ride the wave of Election '08 than staid old C-SPAN.
The network, created by the cable industry in 1979, has developed a cult following by telecasting wall-to-wall sessions of Congress and the Senate. It is now employing one of the Obama campaign's strategies—become ubiquitous on college campuses.
So, one day before Pennsylvania Democrats went to the polls on April 22 to break the 6½-week stalemate between Obama and Hillary Clinton, the C-SPAN Campaign 2008 bus was parked in the cement quad at Temple University in Philadelphia. It was the seventh stop of an eight-school tour through Pennsylvania that began April 16 at Edinboro University, a small liberal arts school in the northwest corner of the state, a stone's throw from the shuttered factories of Erie.
C-SPAN's morning program Washington Journal originated live from the Pennsylvania outposts. And at universities, students were invited to sound off on issues important to them in the upcoming election for the network's YouTube voter video initiative (www.youtube.com/cspan). Some of the videos made the cut and were broadcast on Washington Journal.
For participating, students were given C-SPAN swag including T-shirts and bottle huggies conveniently proportioned to fit around a bottle of beer. “We finally made something a college student can use,” joked Peter Kiley, VP of communications at C-SPAN.
The network deployed its first studio-on-wheels in 1993, a bright yellow school bus that traveled to middle and high schools in support of the Cable in the Classroom initiative. That bus was converted into the Campaign '08 bus in January 2007, and the Book TV bus was revamped into a second election conveyance in December 2007. So far the campaign buses have visited 128 universities, 148 high schools, 31 middle schools, 43 state capitals, 9 presidential libraries and 18 Rotary Clubs.
Today, the political bus is de rigueur. John McCain's campaign has the Straight Talk Express, and CNN has the 37-foot Election Express.
Most of the students wandering through the bus were not C-SPAN junkies. When queried about whether they watch the network, the response was inevitably “Not really,” accompanied by a shrug.
There were exceptions. Konstantinos Pilidis explained that recently the cable at his house went haywire, and when it returned the only channels he received for a while were the three C-SPAN outlets.
But like many students, Pilidis, 19, a sophomore biology major at Temple who is supporting McCain, eschews traditional media for what he perceives as its ideological slant. With C-SPAN, he said, “You're not hearing news from a reporter's mouth. You get to hear what [the candidates] are actually talking about.”
C-SPAN's mission of gavel-to-gavel coverage has always set it apart. But in an increasingly cacophonous media universe, the network's blandness has become its greatest asset.
“We really haven't changed in 30 years,” says Steve Scully, political editor at C-SPAN. “The technology has changed. Our graphics are much better. We cover events in a much better way because of technology. We have smaller cameras; we can kind of get into the crowd. But our basic mission has pretty much stayed the same. We want to be the eyes and ears.”
C-SPAN had a camera outside Obama campaign headquarters in York two days before the Pennsylvania primary as Sen. Edward Kennedy arrived to rally volunteers. Likewise, when Clinton finished speaking at Penn State—where her father played football—on the eve of the primary, C-SPAN cameras stayed on, following her as she continued to work the crowd.
“You really get an idea of what it's like for these candidates in the 11th hour of campaigning,” Scully adds. “Everyone else does the news and the analysis and the spin, and that's great. But we show the whole thing.”
STAYING IN THE ZEITGEIST
The 2008 campaigns have been a boon for C-SPAN. A non-profit funded by the cable industry that does not air advertising or accept sponsorship, the network relies on the value and exposure of its programming to keep it in the Zeitgeist. The 2008 presidential campaigns could go a long way in propelling the C-SPAN brand beyond the events it's known for: marathon somnambulant sessions of Congress, or obscure hearings of House and Senate subcommittees.
With thousands of college students mobilizing to campaign for Obama, politics has become a millennial trend. And C-SPAN is there to capitalize on it, with what is, in fact, a brand of reality television.
And at a time when bandwidth is increasingly coveted, a new generation of C-SPAN watchers is that much more valuable to the health of the network. The Campaign '08 buses serve as giant mobile billboards and interactive outreach vehicles in C-SPAN's mission to attract young viewers.
Howie Walters, a 19-year-old chemistry major at Temple, had just recorded a YouTube interview about skyrocketing gas prices. As he pulled on an extra-large T-shirt emblazoned with the C-SPAN logo, he exclaimed, “This is my third C-SPAN T-shirt! Cool.”