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Man on a Mission - Broadcasting & Cable

Man on a Mission

C-SPAN's Kennedy sees a multiplatform future for public-affairs TV
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As a finance guy, Rob Kennedy knows he'd likely be a far wealthier man had he chosen to work for a conventional cable programmer for the past two decades. Instead, he has spent those years as one of the three top executives at C-SPAN, a network with an unconventional zeal for public affairs and a salary scale to match: roughly a quarter of what major programmers pay executives in similar slots.

“Money's important, no doubt about that,” says Kennedy, executive VP and co-COO at C-SPAN. “But I ended up with such a strong position for the mission that I never looked back.”

That mission—bringing TV viewers a lightly filtered glimpse at the sausage factory of their government—continues unabated. With unedited congressional hearings, lengthy speeches, and almost maddeningly balanced talk and interview shows, C-SPAN offers an exhaustive—and sometimes exhausting—view of our political system.

But as head of the business side for the programmer's three networks, Kennedy's purview is not altogether different from that of his counterparts at commercial networks. He keeps the money rolling in, pays the bills and helps to prepare C-SPAN for the same multiplatform future that awaits all TV programmers.

NO ORDINARY NON-PROFIT

Although C-SPAN is a non-profit corporation, its financial statements don't exactly resemble the filings of the Salvation Army. And while it sells no commercials, the network differs from public broadcasting in that it neither seeks grants from foundations nor sells corporate underwriting spots.

Like most commercial cable networks, C-SPAN collects a license fee from cable and DBS (direct broadcast satellite) operators, around 5¢ monthly per subscriber. The fees generate around 95% of the network's $52 million annual revenue. (Sales of DVDs and tapes of programs account for the remaining 5%.)

“The business relationship that we have with the cable and DBS industry is what keeps us sharp,” Kennedy says. “It keeps our budgets in check.”

And in check they are. Forget the $2 million a broadcast network shells out for an hour-long drama. C-SPAN doesn't even approach the $20,000 or so that Food Network might spend on an in-studio cooking show.

An hour of C-SPAN programming—often requiring little more than a few camera operators, a sound man, maybe a producer—costs an average $2,300. Going on the road is expensive, though not as pricey as for broadcast or cable news units; and C-SPAN's minimalism dispenses with costly post-production.

Kennedy recalls visiting ABC News' Washington bureau, where he found an elaborate editing setup. “They had maybe 20 editing bays,” he says. “We had two.”

He acknowledges growing up something of a geek. As a child in Springfield, Ill., where his family ran an electrical-supply business, he looked forward to Monday holidays so he could stay up late Sunday night listening for distant stations on his shortwave radio.

That techie inclination nudged him toward a major in engineering at the University of Illinois, but the family business spurred him to seek an M.B.A. at the University of Chicago.

Kennedy's first exposure to the TV industry was a summer internship at the cable division of independent telephone company Centel, where he helped prepare the financial plan for a new franchise in the Chicago suburbs. “I kind of fell in love with the cable business,” he says. “Cable married my interest in engineering, business and television, which I watched a fair amount of.”

Kennedy first crossed paths with C-SPAN soon after joining Centel in 1980. Jack Frazee, then CEO of Centel Cable, was chairman of the new public-affairs network, and he dispatched Kennedy to Washington to help draft a formal business plan. With C-SPAN founder/CEO Brian Lamb and Kennedy's current co-COO Susan Swain, Kennedy produced a five-year scheme for staffing, equipment purchases and planning for upcoming presidential-election coverage.

Kennedy then went to work for a Rochester, N.Y., system owned by Time Inc.'s American Television & Communications, but he kept in touch with the C-SPAN crowd. In 1987, Lamb asked him to join as VP of business affairs and elevated him to his current slot in 1995.

PIANO PLAYER IN THE BACKGROUND

While Lamb and Swain do double duty as executives and on-air hosts, Kennedy remains off-camera. It's a perch he enjoys in another capacity as well: piano player in local blues-rock bands. “I don't sing,” he says. “I'm in the background.”

Like his commercial-network peers, Kennedy worries about the best way to approach new technology. Producing content for video-on-demand has been a relatively easy move; cable clients are hungry for programming. But Kennedy is still unsure about other platforms, like cellphone TV or video iPods.

“If we don't stake out the public- affairs space, someone else will,” he says. In the scheme of things, he adds, “we're not necessarily the leader of the pack, because it takes a lot of money to be the leader of the pack. But we won't be far behind.”

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