Continuous coverage of Democrats' sit-in has viewers chilling with C-SPAN

The Democratic House members’ 25 ½ hour sit-in over gun legislation turned C-SPAN into TV’s hottest cable network.

The hashtag #CSPANandChill was trending on Twitter as viewers watched the video streams of House members’ emotional pleas to to vote on legislation to restrict the sale of firearms to people on the government’s “no fly” list.  C-SPAN tapped into live feeds sent out over the live video-streaming apps Periscope and Facebook Live after Congress’ TV feed was cut off.

But there won’t be any headlines in the show business trades trumpeting audience records. C-SPAN — which stands for Cable Satellite Public Affairs Network — doesn’t get Nielsen ratings because it’s commercial-free.

“We don’t take any ratings and we never have,” said C-SPAN Networks Vice President Peter Kiley. “We don’t want to make editorial decisions based on our ratings.”

The Washington, D.C.-based C-SPAN is often mocked by comedians for its static, no-frills coverage of proceedings in the House and Senate and federal government agency hearings.  But the channel has never felt any pressure to try to be cool. Its mission has been quite the opposite.

“We have a commitment to the cable industry and the American public that whenever the House and Senate are in session, we show it live gavel to gavel,” Kiley said. “That’s the core public service thing that we do.”

C-SPAN uses the House TV feed, which is controlled by the majority party. It was cut off Wednesday when the session was adjourned. But once the sit-in began, C-SPAN producers tapped into video being captured by members on the floor and it ran for the next 25 hours without interruption.

Kiley said the channel has used Periscope feeds for color around events but never at the length it ran during the sit-in. It may have been the first use of Facebook Live video. As a result, C-SPAN viewers had an unfiltered view of the sit-in, an alternative to coverage on the cable news networks.

“We were just using our platform to share it,” Kiley said. “We’re all about coverage of Congress. That’s the reason we’re here. We’re just using new technology.”

C-SPAN was founded in 1979 as a nonprofit service by the cable industry when the multi-channel video business was still young. Cable operators often offered the channel as a show of good citizenship when going before local town councils and boards to franchise rights.

Just like other channels, it’s compensated with license fees from operators who pay 6 cents a month for every subscriber, amounting to $70 million annually.

Kiley is hoping the positive response generated by the sit-in coverage will give viewers a new appreciation for the channel and the fact that it’s a nonprofit service funded by an industry that is not always beloved by the consumer.

“The cable and satellite operators don’t generate any revenue off of us,” Kiley said. “They give us 6 cents and they give us capacity on their systems. They don’t get thanked for it very often. Other industries don’t do anything quite like this.”

 

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