In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Impact of C-SPAN on US Democracy

  • Introduction
  • Brian Lamb and the Origin of C-SPAN
  • Growth of the Network
  • The C-SPAN Archives
  • Congress Debates Television
  • Member Floor Speeches
  • Economic Studies of Congress
  • Books Written about Booknotes by C-SPAN
  • Books about Presidents by C-SPAN
  • Books on the Supreme Court by C-SPAN
  • Studies of Presidential Rhetoric
  • Experimental Research
  • Reactions to Televised Debates and Events
  • Annual Research Volumes Published by the Purdue University Press
  • Racial Diversity Themes
  • Historical Studies
  • Congressional Rhetorical Analysis
  • Reflective Essays on C-SPAN Research Possibilities
  • Science and Technology
  • Nonverbal Behavior
  • Judicial Nominations
  • Innovative Congressional Studies
  • Conversational Analysis
  • Policy Studies
  • Teaching Examples
  • Gender Studies
  • Presidential Appearances

Political Science Impact of C-SPAN on US Democracy
Robert X. Browning
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 February 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0328


In 1979, a new US cable television network was created. It was called C-SPAN, an acronym reflecting its origin. The Cable Satellite Public Affairs Network was created to record public affairs programming and deliver it by cable and satellite into US homes. Cable was a nascent industry at that time. It began mostly as a retransmission of broadcast signals into areas that had poor terrestrial reception. The satellite revolution of the 1970s known as “Open Skies” made it possible for new networks to deliver their signals to home satellite dishes, but more importantly, to cable operators who were offered new exclusive, nonbroadcast networks that they could sell to the local subscribers. Home Box Office, or HBO, was successful delivering movies this way, which allowed commercial-free content offered for a premium. Cable operators were thus interested in this new satellite-delivered content that would distinguish cable and give customers reasons to subscribe. Brian Lamb was one of these network entrepreneurs, who with a background in radio, broadcast television, public affairs, satellite policy, and cable television, envisioned a cable satellite network that would bring unedited, Washington, DC–based public affairs programming delivered over cable television systems to American homes. He convinced some cable television executives, with a complementary entrepreneur spirit, to invest in his idea. The result was a nonprofit network dedicated to public affairs events in their entirety. It would be paid for by monthly, per-home license fees paid by the cable operators to the network in exchange for receiving the television signal. This, however, was just half of the story of the origin of C-SPAN. While Brian Lamb was developing his idea and thinking of how content from Washington, DC, events could be delivered via satellite to cable systems, another group was also working on a similar idea. The year was 1977 and the group was the United States House of Representatives. The mid-1970s were a heady time for the US Congress. President Nixon resigned in 1974 after congressional investigations of the 1972 Watergate break in. Congress passed the far-reaching War Powers Act and Congressional Budget Impoundment Act over presidential vetoes to strengthen Congress over what noted historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote was the “Imperial Presidency.” When the US House of Representatives first televised its proceedings on 19 March 1979, C-SPAN began transmitting the signal via satellite and the new network was available.

Brian Lamb and the Origin of C-SPAN

There are numerous articles on Brian Lamb, the C-SPAN founder. Most recount his growing up in Lafayette, Indiana; his Navy service; his experience in the Pentagon and the Office of Telecommunications Policy; the editing of cable newsletters; experience on Capitol Hill; and the founding of C-SPAN. Two of the most notable are Lardner 1994 in the New Yorker that focuses on Brian Lamb’s background and influences on the C-SPAN networks. Another account is from the blog post Doyle 2012 that covers the same territory, but from a blogger’s perspective. Frantzich and Sullivan 1996 provides a biography of the company, including Brian Lamb’s role in the founding in the authors’ book.

  • Doyle, Jack. “‘Brian’s Song’: C-SPAN.” Popular History Dig, 30 April 2012.

    This slightly irreverent blog recounts important elements of Brian Lamb’s life that influenced him in the idea to create C-SPAN. It contains a lot of detail and early pictures. It is more current than the New Yorker or the Frantzich and Sullivan book. All of these pieces are good to understand the influences that shaped Brian Lamb and led him to create C-SPAN and its style of operation.

  • Frantzich, Stephen, and John Sullivan. The C-SPAN Revolution. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1996.

    This book recounts of the beginnings of C-SPAN and evolution of its operation. It is time bound since much has happened since it was written in 1996. It is still useful for someone looking for a basic history. C-SPAN is at the crossroads in its development now since the decline of cable revenues is causing it to rethink the basic business model of funding. No articles have been written on this yet.

  • Lardner, James. “Annals of the Media: The Anti-Network.” New Yorker, 14 March 1994: 48–51.

    This is an insightful look at the origins of the C-SPAN network. It has details on Brian Lamb’s background, the philosophy and “anti-network” style of C-SPAN, and is helpful in understanding Brian Lamb’s influence on the network. It is written after the 1992 cable act that had a negative impact on C-SPAN carriage. While C-SPAN did add a third network, it never did add the fourth and fifth mentioned in the article.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.